Yonnondio Summary

Tillie Olsen


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Yonnondio Summary

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Published in 1974 but written in the 1930s, Yonnondio: From the Thirties is a novel by Tillie Olsen. The book tells the story of the poor, working-class Holbrook family as it weathers the trials of the 1920s. It touches on themes of class and motherhood while exploring the pre-depression era. Olsen, who passed away in 2007, was among the first generation of American feminists. In 1994, she received the Rea Award for a lifetime of outstanding achievement in the field of short story writing.

As the novel begins, six-year-old Mazie Holbrook awakes to the sound of the mine whistle. Her father, Jim, wakes the same way before leaving to go work in the mines. During the mornings, the whistle is a routine sound, but should it happen during the day, it heralds tragedy: the death of a miner. Despite her young age, Mazie already recognizes the mines for the dangerous, oppressive places they are. She says they are “the bowels of the earth” that turn men black inside. She has solid reasons for thinking this, of course. Jim drinks too much and beats her mother, Anna. Anna, in turn, beats and screams at Mazie and her younger brothers Will, Ben, and Jimmie.

After work, Jim usually goes to the bar with the other miners, where they attempt to drink their troubles away. One night, however, Mazie follows him and runs into Sheen McEvoy, a former miner who is now the town’s resident drunk. Sheen tries to throw her down the mine, but luckily the night watchman finds them. He saves Mazie, and Sheen falls into the mine instead. Shaken by the experience, Mazie lies in bed with a fever for days afterward.

When spring comes, Jim decides to move the family east so that he can farm. He hopes that this move will produce an improvement in the health and circumstances of his family, and for awhile, his hopes are fulfilled. Though the life of a tenant farmer is hard, the family is always fed, and for the first time, the children are able to attend school. Mazie even makes friends with a learned neighbor, Old Man Caldwell, who teaches her about stars, economics, and politics. Upon his death, he leaves her several books, but Jim takes and sells them.

The Holbrooks’ idyllic farm life is shattered with the arrival of winter. Despite all his toil, Jim is still in debt to the landowner. Anna is pregnant and depressed, neglecting the children and housework. The freezing weather leaves the family trapped in its kitchen, the only place of meager warmth in the house. The death of some chickens proves to be the final straw, a violent argument erupting between Jim and Anna. He leaves the family, eventually returning ten days later.

March arrives, and with it, a new addition to the family: a baby girl they name Bess. Still in search of better circumstances, Jim again moves the family, this time to a city slum near a slaughterhouse. The city is poor and dirty, and the stench of the slaughterhouse pervades everything, sickening the children—especially Ben, who is naturally frail. The city streets are violent and dangerous, and the kids experience several terrifying events.

Unable to get work at the slaughterhouse, Jim finds employment in the sewers, but it is difficult, dirty work performed under a contractor with impossible expectations. The children attend their new school, but it is a cold, unwelcoming place. Gradually, the family breaks down. Will grows wild and rebellious while Mazie hallucinates that she is still at the farm. Anna cannot cope with the guilt of being unable to meet her family’s needs.

Things grow even worse when Jim comes home drunk one night. He rapes Anna, which leads to a miscarriage that sickens her for days and leaves her severely depressed for much longer. The family is left scrambling to do its best to care for baby Bess. A neighbor comes by to assist, but because everyone in the neighborhood is suffering, the help is only minuscule.

Eventually, Anna leaves her bed, and in a manic episode, frantically cleans the entire house, worried excessively about germs. She takes on laundry jobs to help make ends meet. Jim disapproves but does not stop her. One week, the family has spent all its money on rent, so Anna takes the children around the city searching for dandelion greens that they can cook at home. The family wanders out of the slums into the nicer part of the city, and during an enjoyable afternoon, they find many dandelions. Sadly their reprieve is short-lived; soon the wind shifts, bringing the smell of the slaughterhouse and reminding them where they really belong.

As summer hits, Jim finally gets a job at the slaughterhouse, which brings in more money than his job at the sewers. To celebrate, he buys fireworks for the Fourth of July. Mazie, however, is not allowed to partake in the celebration because it is considered inappropriate for girls. She stops hallucinating about the farm and instead becomes more involved in city life, running wild with the older girls rather than going to the library as her mother suggests. She also slacks off at home, leaving her mother to can the summer fruit alone. One day, Mazie has an encounter with Erina, crippled girl with a twisted mind who tells her that God intends for children to suffer. Badly shaken from the experience, Mazie takes out her fear and anger on her younger brothers.

One night, as the oppressively hot summer comes to a close, Will brings home a radio. The family (save Jim, who is asleep on the porch) listens to it together. Bess grabs a pot lid and joyfully bangs it on the floor, amusing the family. Anna wakes Jim and invites him to join them inside.