Mazie, a six-year-old child, wakes up each day to the sound of the mine whistle. During the morning this is a call for all the miners to get up and go to work. If it rings during the day, Mazie is afraid because it means that one of the workers - possibly her father - has been killed.
On this particular morning she wakes up to hear her father, Jim, getting ready for work. Her mother, Anna, is in the kitchen. She offers to make Jim breakfast. He refuses as he has to go to work early in order to supervise a new, thirteen-year-old worker. The boy, Andy Kvaternick, is taking the place of his father who died recently in the mine. The boy's mother, Marie, is so broken by these events that she wants her daughters to become nuns. Jim is irritated by Anna's relation of Marie's desires and tells her to "quit your woman's blabbin."
Mazie goes back to sleep and Anna lies in bed thinking. She thinks of her four children, and of the terror of the mine whistle. She also worries about the new fire boss, who is apparently too lazy to check the levels of gas each night. Such carelessness, she knows, can lead to a massive explosion and the death of many miners. Suddenly the baby wakes up and Mazie stumbles out of bed, by instinct, to feed it. While Mazie is comforting the baby she asks her mother what an "edjication" is. Her mother claims that an "edjication" is what Mazie, and her brothers and sisters, are going to get.
Mazie lies in the sun, talking to herself. In an extended passage, she speaks about how the mine is the "bowels of the earth" and the coal makes people black inside. She also talks about a story her father told her, that the operators of the mine are ghosts, and contemplates that perhaps she is "black inside too."
Then follows a long passage about Andy Kvaternick, told from the perspective of a distant third-person narrator. It describes the futility and desperation of Andy's new job and new life, and the decline of dignity that he, like all miners, will suffer: "no more can you stand erect," the narrator intones. The passage ends with a depressing view of Andy's future (he will either be slain by "the fat bellies," the capitalists, or he will die from some miserable disease) and cautions that his only solace will be in alcohol.
The narration returns to Anna and Jim Holbrook. Their family life has been suffering. Jim has been hitting Anna and beating up on the children; he has also been drinking excessively. Anna has responded by lashing out at the children. One night Mazie gets up the nerve to follow him as he goes into town to drink, in order to ask him why the whole world seems to be "a-cryen." He is angry with her for following but reacts with kindness, taking her to buy a sucker and promising to protect her from the "ghosts" of the mine.
While Jim is inside the saloon, Mazie stands outside and looks at the sky. Life is pleasant for a few fleeting moments and then Sheen McEvoy stumbles outside of the saloon. McEvoy is a former miner whose face was ripped off during a mining accident. Now he spends all his days drinking, in a state of mental illness. He sees Mazie silhouetted against the sky and thinks she is a ghost escaped from the mine. Upon seeing she is a child, he is possessed with the idea to feed her to the mine. He grabs her and runs, determined to feed her to the mine as a sacrifice - "Men'll die - but they'll live if she gets the baby."
Fortunately, the night watchman sees McEvoy carrying the petrified Mazie and attacks him with a pickax. He catches up to them right before McEvoy throws Mazie down the mine's shaft. During the fray, Mazie rolls away and McEvoy falls down the shaft instead. Then the night watchman returns to the saloon and demands to know whose child Mazie is. Jim collects her and yells at her for leaving, then stops when he realizes she is sick. He takes her home, where she lies in a fever. Afterwards he goes to Anna, and tells her his plan to move the entire family to the farms and open spaces of the Dakotas in the spring. "It's good for the kids," he says. As Anna is agreeing, however, the delirious Mazie interrupts their discussion with a burst of demonic laughter.
Mazie's alarm clock - the way she begins each day - is the mine whistle, the same whistle that signifies death to her if it is blown in the middle of the day. Each day, then, Mazie wakes up to face death and destruction, as do the other members of this mining community. The importance of the whistle in the first two chapters is extremely important - it is a disembodied symbol of death, seeming to come from a being higher than mortals, that determines the moves of all members of this community.
Olsen underlines this symbol of death by opening the book with the story of another death - that of Andy Kvaternick's father Chris. Chris met his death in the mine, and it is anticipated by both the Holbrooks and the distant narrator who speculates on Andy's future that Andy will meet the same fate. One thing that is interesting about this opening story is that Olsen recognizes a complicated web of blame and responsibility for the boy's impending death - it is Jim, after all, who will introduce Andy to the terrible world of the mine.
This opening story also introduces the reader to another vital theme of this book: the world of women's pain, and the ways in which women's suffering is silenced. Marie Kvaternick is so distraught by the effect that the mine has had on her family that she wishes her girls would become nuns. But when Anna tries to share this with Jim, he silences her. Throughout the book, these "silences," and the ways in which pain is encoded in them, appear again and again.
The abrupt switch in narration for Andy Kvaternick's story is an example of the "unfinished" quality of Yonnondio. With abrupt switches in style, tone, and narrative method, we are reminded that this is an unfinished novel that has been pieced together from many sources. Just as we are watching the evolution of the story, we are also watching the evolution of the writer's style.
The Sheen McEvoy tale is very important. It marks Mazie's introduction to the worlds of sex and death - sex, because there is clearly something sexually intimate about the notion of a virgin's sacrifice, and death, because McEvoy is trying to kill her. It also shows again how women are consistently victims of violence and misunderstanding. It is no accident that McEvoy interprets the mine as a woman who needs a child to be pacified - "All women want kids," he claims. Through such violence and such misunderstanding, the book points out yet again the different, but no less serious ways in which women's lives are oppressed by the very same conditions that damage and destroy their men.
The Holbrooks are excited about their move in the spring, but for the rest of the winter they are forced to scrimp and save even more than before. Anna tries to inspire the children with the hope of a new life, but they are restless and find it difficult to accept the promised changes. Their father, forced to stop drinking to save money, tries to be gentle with them, but they find this to be strange and awkward. Meanwhile the town continues to fear that the new fire boss' carelessness will cost them their lives in the mines.
One day in November, everyone is restless and disturbed. The weather seems to inspire this behavior - the sky is gray and thick, like "an eyelid shut in death." Mazie takes the baby and her younger brother Will outside. Five-year-old Will asks Mazie lots of questions about the meaning of life and of other things that he is unable to understand. Mazie does her best to answer his questions. Neither one of them know what the sky is, for example, although they understand what it means to look out a window and not see anything because the window is so grimy.
Suddenly, Mazie jumps up in a terror. She imagines that the sky is full of ears and that the ears and the eyes of the earth are watching them hungrily. She runs with Will and as they run, they hear the whistle from the mine. They run in the direction of the mine and discover that, due to the gas explosion, many of the workers have been buried alive. Jim is missing.
A long, ironic passage from a distant, third-person narrator follows. The theme is how the sight of the devastated women at the mine is picturesque, how their tragedy is classic in the Greek or Roman mode, and how it would be perfect for an artist to carve their forms into a cameo. In a long parenthesis, the narrator describes the press release the mine will issue about the "unavoidable catastrophe" of the explosion.
Jim returns home after five days. He seems haunted and swears to move the family in the spring, no matter what. A brief passage, with no clear narrator, follows. The passage is a series of bits of dialogue from different family members regarding their struggle to save enough money to leave. Anna tries to get short-term jobs cooking and washing, Jim takes on dangerous jobs working under a loose roof, and the children are growing gaunt and thin without adequate food.
After many hardships, including a delay due to weather, the family is finally ready to go in April. Jim loads up their "decrepit" wagon and prepares their old horse. The family says good-bye to their neighbors, who watch them leave with "no envy," only "wistfulness."
This chapter serves primarily to examine how the hardships of poverty have created quiet rifts in the family life of the Holbrooks - rifts that will explode as the book goes on. The children, for example, are so used to a family life filled with violence and hostility that they cannot take their father's gentleness seriously. They continually wait for a drunken explosion or a beating, and believe that their father's attempts to reconcile with them are false. The fact that they are uninspired by their parents' plans to move show that they do not anticipate a positive change in their quality of life. Such disillusionment at such a young age is a by-product of the incredible poverty and difficulties these children have endured.
This destruction of childhood innocence is a theme throughout the book, and it is stressed in passages such as the exchange between Mazie and Will as they lie under a gray sky. It is important that although neither Mazie nor Will understand the meanings of potentially romantic words such as "sky" or "breath," they know what the flapping motion of rags sounds like, and how it is impossible to look out of a dirty window. These are their childhood memories, Olsen is saying, and they have been deprived of a romantic vision of childhood by their economic circumstances.
The explosion in the mine is a crucial turning point for the Holbrooks. It becomes obvious that if Jim continues working in the mine, he will die or have his spirit crushed completely. The entire family pitches in, and for a moment there seems to be a strange type of harmony in their combined exhaustion and hunger. Unfortunately, Olsen's use of foreshadowing at the end of the chapter - the lack of envy from their neighbors, and the echo of Mazie's demonic laughter - warns us that despite their efforts, the next move will not bring an answer to their problems.
The juxtaposition of many different narrative voices (there are three shifts in the narrative voice on page 30 alone) offers Olsen the opportunity to comment on the lives of her characters as their lives pass. Her use of the third-person narrator, particularly in the ironic passage following the mine explosion, offers a greater historical context to the struggles of the individuals of the story.