The play begins with the narrator, Katrin, sitting at her writing desk putting the finishing touches on a manuscript. She begins to read from it, and we are transported back to her childhood in 1910 San Francisco.
It is through Katrin that we view the rest of the family. An aspiring writer, she longs for more drama and excitement than she feels her life and family provide. For the Hanson's story is not one of high adventure: rather, it's a series of vignettes of normal problems and crises that make up an average life. Sickness in the family, bills which need to be paid, family arguments, the death of a relative...these occurrences are not unusual or particular to the Hanson family. What makes them interesting are the inventive and often humorous ways in which they deal with these situations.
As with any family, especially an extended one, there are a lot of different personalities and conflicting opinions on how many of these circumstances should be handled. Whatever their disagreement, however, when the chips are down, the family faces its problems as a united front, if a sometimes grudging one. At the center of this unit is Mama: if Uncle Chris is the head of the family, then she is its heart. Often the family's calm center, she mediates squabbles between the Aunts, finds ways to make the family's meagre income stretch through the hard times, and unlike the rest of the family, deals affectionately- not fearfully- with Uncle Chris. She loves her children and supports their dreams and ambitions, often sacrificing her own comforts for them. Throughout the play, this is exemplified by Mama's coat. The Hanson family saves money in a jar, which they use for household expenses. When enough is saved, the plan is for Mama to get a much-needed warm coat. Somehow though, with all the other expenditures- school supplies, medicine, and other necessities- there is never enough for it. Her cheerful acceptance of this gives us a view of how she faces life: things may be hard right now, but if they take care of each other and work hard, better times will come; until then, they'll get by with what they have.