powered by AFI
Upon completing the last lines of her autobiographical novel, youthful Katrin Hanson reminisces about her family life: In 1910, in a modest San Francisco house, Katrin's Norwegian-born mother, Marta Hanson, computes the weekly budget with help from her husband Lars, daughters Katrin, Christine and Dagmar and son Nels. When the adolescent Nels declares his desire to attend high school, Marta is pleased, but realizes their "little bank" lacks sufficient funds to pay for his education. After each family member offers to make a monetary sacrifice so that Nels may continue his schooling, Trina, Marta's spinster sister, drops by to speak privately with Marta. To Marta's surprise, Trina announces that she is marrying Peter Thorkelson, a homely undertaker, and begs Marta to break the news to their sisters, Sigrid and Jenny, who Trina fears will laugh at her. As predicted, the bossy Jenny and whiny Sigrid laugh upon hearing of the engagement, but when Marta threatens to reveal embarrassing anecdotes about them to Trina, the sisters agree to keep quiet. Later that evening, Jonathan Hyde, the Hansons' erudite, penniless lodger, reads to them from Charles Dickens' A Tale of Two Cities , and the entire family, especially fledgling writer Katrin, is deeply moved by the story. Soon after, the family is visited by Marta's overbearing but big-hearted uncle, Chris Halvorsen, who drives into the city with his common law wife, Jessie Brown. When the lame Chris, whose loud, gruff ways strike fear in the Hanson children, learns that Dagmar, the youngest daughter, is severely ill with mastoiditis, he insists on driving her to the hospital. Because they disapprove of Jessie, Sigrid and Jenny attempt to stop Chris, but he bullies his way past them with Dagmar and Marta in tow. Then the meek Trina and Peter reveal their engagement to Chris, the family's head, and are relieved to receive his blessing. Although Dagmar's operation is a success, Marta is forbidden to see her by the hospital staff. At home, Marta, who promised Dagmar she would visit immediately after the operation, becomes increasingly agitated about the separation and begins scrubbing the floor nervously. Marta's scrubbing inspires a plan: Impersonating a floor-scrubbing maid at the hospital, Marta sneaks into Dagmar's ward and sings a Norwegian lullaby to help her frightened daughter fall asleep. Sometime later, when a recovered Dagmar returns home, she learns that her cat, Uncle Elizabeth, is very ill. Despite Dagmar's belief in her mother's curative powers, Marta feels helpless to save the wounded cat and sends Nels to buy some chloroform with which to kill it. The other children, meanwhile, see Mr. Hyde leaving the house with his suitcases, and Marta discovers that he has left them a check for his overdue rent, as well as his book collection. The family's joy at receiving Mr. Hyde's check is soon undone when Sigrid and Jenny inform them that their lodger has no bank account. Although Sigrid and Jenny are indignant over Mr. Hyde's deception, wise Marta declares that his gift of literature is payment enough. Marta then applies the chloroform to Uncle Elizabeth, but is astounded when, the next morning, an unsuspecting Dagmar marches off with a sleepy but very alive cat. Later, as Katrin nears her school graduation date, she brags to Christine that Marta is going to buy her a much-coveted dresser set as a present. Although the younger, envious Christine tells her that Marta is planning to give her their grandmother's brooch, Katrin does receive the dresser set. As Katrin is about to leave to perform "Portia" in her school's production of The Merchant of Venice , however, Christine informs her that Marta sold her beloved brooch in order to buy the dresser set. Crushed by this revelation, Katrin performs badly in the play, and later presents her mother with her brooch, which she exchanged for the dresser set. Touched by Katrin's gesture, Marta gives her the brooch and scolds Christine for telling. Then, to mark her entrance into adulthood, Katrin's father serves her coffee for the first time. Sometime later, Marta is notified that Uncle Chris is near death, and she takes Katrin to say goodbye to him at his ranch. The alcoholic but still feisty Uncle Chris reveals to Marta that he has no money to leave her, and confesses that he and Jessie have been married for years but have been silent about it because of his nieces' snubbing. After enjoying a last drink with Jessie and Marta, Uncle Chris dies. Marta then tells her sisters the truth about Jessie and that Uncle Chris had long been donating money to help poor lame children. Having "seen" death, Katrin returns to San Francisco with Marta and is devastated when she receives her first literary rejection letter. Determined to bolster Katrin's confidence, Marta takes some of her stories to renowned author Florence Dana Moorhead, who loves to eat, and convinces her to read one by offering to share a family meatball recipe with her. Marta returns home to find Katrin destroying her writings and happily tells her that, while Moorhead agreed that her stories were lacking, she also felt that Katrin was a born author. Taking Moorhead's advice to write about "what she knows," Katrin submits a new story for publication and is overjoyed when she is paid $500 for her efforts. After announcing that some of the money is going to buy the winter coat that Marta has always longed for, Katrin confesses that her mother is the subject of her story and begins to read it aloud. The introduction of her story concludes with the line, "But first and foremost, I remember Mama."