Monday, April 09, 2007

Review: Mama's Bank Account by Kathryn Forbes

Mama's Bank Account: The funny, touching, gentle story of an indomitable Norwegian-American matriarch and her loving family by Kathryn Forbes
1943, Harvest Books, 147 pages, softcover

When I first proposed to read this story aloud to my children, my oldest, then perhaps 8 or 9 years old, protested loudly! She thought it was going to be a series of numbers and notes about expenditures that I was going to read to her. It only took a little persuading and a few pages before she was hooked.

This is a true story - really a set of simple reminiscences - about a Norwegian immigrant family living in San Francisco in the early 1900s (somewhere between the 1906 earthquake and World War I). The stories center around the author's mother, "Mama" - a wonderful character who is difficult to describe with just a few quick adjectives. This is partly because the author reveals her mother's character through favorite family stories in a lovely, subtle way (with plenty of laugh-out-loud spots!). You come to see that Mama is shrewd but completely selfless; she has a wonderful grasp of human nature, but is easily misunderstood (by friends, relatives or readers of the book) because she so readily sees what is good in everyone; she is quiet, but oh, SO stubborn and certainly knows how to get things done in spite of insurmountable odds! Looking through Mama's eyes at the interesting characters that come into her life is a wonderful experience and one you shouldn't miss.

Here's a little part of a story to give you a little sense of the book. A boarder, Mr. Hyde, has lived with their family for some time and enthralled all of them by reading classic novels aloud to them every night.
Even when the warm weather came we children didn't beg to go out in the evenings to play one-foot-off-the-gutter. I think Mama was glad; she never liked us running the streets.

Best of all, Nels went less and less to the street corner to hang around with the neighborhood boys. The night they got into trouble for breaking into Mr. Dillon's store Nels was home with us. He'd wanted to hear the last chapter of Dombey and Son.

Mr. Hyde had taken us deep into Ivanhoe when he got the letter.

"I must go," he told Mama. "I shall leave the books for Nels and the children. Here is my check for all I owe you, madam, and my profound thanks for your hospitality."

We were sorry to see Mr. Hyde leave, but it was with great excitement that we brought his books out into the kitchen. There were so many of them! We read some of the titles: A Tale of Two Cities, Nicholas Nickleby, Vanity Fair, The Adventures of Alice in Wonderland, Oliver Twist, A Midsummer Night's Dream.

Mama dusted them reverently. "So much we can learn," she said. Nels, she added, could read aloud to us each evening, just as Mr. Hyde had done, because Nels too had a fine voice. I could see that made him very proud.

Mama showed Mr. Hyde's check to Aunt Jenny. "You see?" she said. "The warm coat I shall have after all."

It was too bad that Aunt Jenny was still there when Mr. Kruper came. Mr. Kruper owned the restaurant and bakery down the street and he was angry.

"That man Hyde was a crook!" he shouted. "Look at this check he gave me. It's no good! The bank people tell me he cashed them all over the neighborhood."

Aunt Jenny's triumphant nod said as plainly as words - I told you so!

"I'll bet he owes you folks plenty, too, eh?" Mr. Kruper asked.

Mama looked around at all of us. Her eyes rested longest on Nels. "Read," she told him gently, "read to us from Ivanhoe."

Then she walked to the stove and put the check into the flames.

"No," she answered Mr. Kruper. "No. He owes us nothing."
I think this is best as a solo read for the 12 and up crowd, though it could be read aloud - perhaps with a little explanation or discussion along the way - to children much younger.

If you've ever seen the movie I Remember Mama (1948) with Irene Dunne, you're already acquainted with the main characters of this lovely little book. If you haven't seen it yet, you're missing out on a real treasure that could be enjoyed before or after this book. But that's a matter for a separate review.

Reviewed by Alicia Van Hecke (4-9-07)
Available from Adoremus Books


Mary G said...


Growing up in San Francisco, I can remember LOVING the movie and the BOOK! Both were so lovely -- and great as they showed the life of immigrants to the City in such a wonderful, funny way.

I didn't know this had been reintro'ed. THANKS for the tip!

Love2Learn Mom said...

I'm glad you love them too. Though my Dad and his Mom both grew up in San Francisco (and I grew up on the Peninsula), I didn't discover these treasures until I was an adult living in Wisconsin!

Christine said...

I recently watched "I Remember Mama" and wrote a little bit about it on my blog. Thank you for recommending the book. My husband enjoys movies almost as much as I like books. He has slowly been sharing what he considers some of the better movies with me.

Rachel Wagner. said...

I love this book. I think it is tender and sweet but it also has some good lessons for families. My favorite story is when Kathryn steals the candy and her mother lovingly consoles her- reminding her that she has done a naughty thing but is not a bad girl. If only all parents could put aside their anger and be so wise.