Yonnondio: From the Thirties

Yonnondio: From the Thirties Summary and Analysis of Chapters 5-6

Chapter Five:


The chapter opens with a cinematic journey through the Holbrooks' new environment: the slaughterhouses on the edge of a slum. In a series of quick cuts, Olsen shows us the particulars of their new home: the "skeleton children," the poorly constructed homes, and, especially, the smell: "fog of stinkŠvast unmoving stench." They move into an "ancient battered house" near the river. The stench is overpowering and makes the children ill.

Will and Mazie return to school with a fierce warning from Anna: "I catch you not doin good and I'll knock the livin daylights out of you, you hear?" They are immediately set apart from the rest of the class by the fact of being new students, and being from the country at that. Mazie shuts her eyes and tries to imagine that she is still on the farm, but she is rudely awakened at recess. Another student, Smoky, attacks Mazie on the playground. She chases him but fails to catch him; instead she settles for shoving two girls who stand by, laughing. The teacher blames her for the incident. Standing in front of the class, Mazie begins to cry. Will claims that she is not his sister, and she cries harder.

That night the family visits the Bedners, old friends of Jim and Anna. The Bedners have prospered and live in a nice home in a better part of town. The visit is strained, but Jim gets information about a possible job with the road and sewer works. The visit ends on a happy but awkward note, with Mrs. Bedner playing the piano and the whole house singing.

Anna feels paralyzed by weariness and deprivation. Ben is sick in bed from the smell, and her attempts to beautify the house are useless. The house "resisted her." Her mind moves frantically over her family's needs. In her brief spurts of consciousness (this portion of the chapter is told from her perspective), we see the frightening psychological states of the children. Mazie believes that the family is still on the farm. Will is morose, surly, and defiant and beats his sick younger brother. Ben is frightened and confused. Bess, the baby, "shrank and yellowed." Anna feels herself falling into complete detachment and emotional distance from her family, her life, and her troubles.

Jim, meanwhile, works hard at his sewer job. The contractor wants them to lay down twelve feet a day, "when ten's all anything on two legs can manage." At the end of a long day, the men strip off their work clothes and complain. They are interrupted by the appearance of the contractor, who announces a new plan: they will lay ten feet a day, but with two men rather than four. The arrogance of the contractor and the seeming impossibility of the task provoke Tracy, a young, hotheaded worker, into quitting. Jim, frustrated by the work and angry that Tracy doesn't have "a woman and kids hangin round [his] neck," goes to a bar to drink off his anger.

In a long, didactic passage, Olsen switches narration to tell the story of Tracy after he leaves the sewering job. Unable to find another job, he travels from place to place, getting hungrier and hungrier, and at last he ends up on a chain gang in Florida. It is his own fault, this passage claims, for "not yet knowing a job was God."

The Holbrook family continues to deteriorate. The children run afoul of the perils of street life, confronting hostility and violence from strangers. In a particularly terrifying passage, we walk with Mazie through the streets as she goes to fetch a bucket of lard. She is surrounded by prostitutes, hustlers, and bums; she is spat on and witnesses at least three acts of violence. Anna, pregnant again, is too tired and ill to pay attention to the children's emotional demands.

Anna's incoherence and neglect of the children creates more tension between Anna and Jim, especially when it affects Anna's ability to prepare dinner. Their neighbors, a kindly Polish couple named the Kryckskis, silently emerge to help, sensing the Holbrooks' despair.

One night, Mazie hears her father come in drunk. She hides underneath the bedclothes while he lurches through the house. She hears an exchange between Jim and Anna in bed - Anna protesting, while Jim ranting "Cant screw my own wife. Expect me to go to a whore? Hold still." Then Mazie finds Anna on the floor, with blood everywhere. She manages to rouse her father, who calls a doctor while Mazie looks after Bess.

The doctor announces that Anna has miscarried and is very ill. The baby, Bess, is also suffering from numerous problems - rickets, thrush, and dehydration. Disgusted with the "pigsty," the doctor prescribes a number of things to help Anna and Bess get well. Mazie has run away, but Jim finds her and takes her home, and tries to comfort her. The chapter ends with the two of them sitting together in a chair, while Jim's mind is full of things that are "terrible and bitter."


Olsen opens this chapter with a rapid tour through that industrial inferno, a workers' slum. This is a terrifying world where violence erupts constantly and without warning - on the job, in the streets, and in the home.

The most pervasive symbol of this world is the smell of the nearby packinghouse. Olsen tries to describe it, and although she cannot fully grasp it in words, it pervades the rest of the book. The stench serves as a physical reminder - for little is more oppressive than constant stink--of the economic, social, and psychological oppression the Holbrooks and all other workers suffer. It makes Ben ill and pitches the rest of the family into a long, horrifying, dreamlike state of apathy and immobility.

The slum's new and terrible codes are aptly showcased in Mazie's return to school. Unlike the school in the country, where she was given an opportunity to learn and quickly proved herself brighter than the work she was allowed to do, here Mazie is degraded and dehumanized. The first degradation comes at the hands of the teacher, whose supercilious introduction of Mazie and Will to the rest of the class practically begs a contemptuous response from the other students. When Smoky responds in kind, Mazie is blamed. The teacher's reaction is both unfair and revealing of the types of psychological oppression poor people are often forced to face. The teacher blames Mazie for violence which her own words about Mazie's life provoked. This incident symbolizes how Mazie will be forced to fight for her own visibility and her own existence for the rest of her life.

The didactic passage about Tracy is interesting, if somewhat overdone. In its narration and storyline it mirrors the passage about Andy Kvaternick in Chapter One. Although these passages disrupt the flow of the greater storyline and are often jolting, with their switches in narration, they are intriguing side stories about minor players in the text. They represent a forum for Olsen to air her political views with less concern for narration, and they are intriguing "alternate" stories running alongside the main story. By their inclusion in the text, Olsen creates a tapestry of stories about the poor and an alternative vision of poor life. Men, women, married, unmarried, young, old - these vignettes all have one thing in common: the inability of their characters to rise above the overwhelming obstacles of a capitalist society.

The majority of the chapter, however, is devoted to Mazie and Anna. Readers may feel confused by Olsen's style during this chapter: sentences are fragmented, scenes begin and end with no visible delineation, and both narrators and speakers go unidentified. This style is a deliberate move on Olsen's part to portray the confusion and growing mental illness of Anna and her children, particularly Mazie. We are meant to feel disoriented throughout much of this chapter, much the way Anna and Mazie do.

Anna is lost. Even her previous passion for education is exhausted: Will brings home a failure report from school, and she issues a halfhearted threat to an empty room. Her rape by Jim and subsequent miscarriage leave her empty on the floor; even Mazie's description of her is less than alive: "lifeless," "corpse." The doctor is a jolting, if self-righteous, reminder of the outside world. It is he who brings awareness of Anna's condition to the rest of the family. It takes a stranger because the rest of the family is too beleaguered by their own struggles to notice the seriousness of Anna's pain.

Chapter Six:


For two days, Anna lies unmoving in bed. Else Kryckski is the surrogate mother and caretaker while Anna is ill. Despite her sickness, Anna feels the need to get up and take care of the house, but Else keeps her in bed.

The children run wild with the first days of summer. School is out and the whole slum is their playground. With the exception of Ben, they ignore Else's pleadings and their mother's illness in order to run around outside. But they always come back in the evenings when Else is gone, to watch their mother, take care of baby Bess, and cook dinner. When he gets home from work, Jim takes over Bess's care and tries to figure out budgeting and food himself.

On the third day Anna shows signs of life. She begins tossing in bed and asking about Bess. Jim tries to hush her, but she refuses to look at him. Else takes her to the clinic, where she panics about bringing baby Bess into the site of so many germs. Later on she wanders downstairs, where Jim and Else sit talking, and babbles incoherently about disease and her fears for baby Bess. With effort, they force her back into bed.

For the next several pages, the reader is directly in Anna's head. Even in illness she is preoccupied with money and fears for her children and the state of the house. Although she is supposed to stay in bed, she gets up to go to the bathroom, and in doing so she catches a glimpse of the disordered state of her house. Disease and germs are new obsessions; she fears she has exposed Bess to horrible illness by bringing her to the clinic. This obsession seems to have been provoked by a poster in the clinic, one that trumpeted "Flies Spread Germs. Germs Breed Disease. Protect your children." These lines run through Anna's head as she lurches through the house, trying vainly to clean it. Ben, eager for a hug, rushes up to her, but the sight of him - covered with rashes and scabs - only makes her more upset.

As she cleans, Else Kryckski walks in. Furious, she tries to make Anna go back to bed, but her attempt is unsuccessful. Anna insists on staying up, and Else agrees on the condition that Else is constantly on hand in case Anna feels weak. Mazie comes in, and Anna tries to make her help, but she is sullen and unwilling, wishing to go play with a friend named Annamae. At last Mazie agrees to help, and the women begin going through the house. The house is in a state of complete disrepair, as are the children's clothes and shoes. The task proves beyond Anna's powers and she begins to swoon. It is not the fact that everything is a mess, but something else: "It was that she felt so worn, so helpless; that it loomed gigantic beyond her, impossible ever to achieve, beyond any effort or doing of hers: that task of making a better life for her children to which her being was bound."

Jim comes home to find Anna out of bed. He is surprised and concerned, then tender with her. She lashes out at him, claiming that if she doesn't get up and clean the house no one will. Her words crumble into a plea for the well-being of their children; she collapses in Jim's arms. He takes her upstairs and soothes her with "vows that life will never let him keep."


The household stumbles on despite Anna's illness. Jim's devotion and tenderness to his family in the face of adversity speak highly of him - if not for the poverty and exhaustion that he faces every day, he might have been a wonderful father and husband. Unfortunately, due to his economic circumstances, this is not to be. The quiet tragedy of what Jim could have been is a sad "what if" that hangs over this book.

But the centerpiece of this chapter is Anna. As she recovers from her illness, we are met with her fears, her sacrifices, and, above all, her dogged determination. She is not completely clear-headed yet, nor will she ever be completely healed. Once again, Olsen makes this clear through her narrative style. The text remains muddled, though the jumps and jolts are not nearly as frequent or serious as the ones in Chapter Five. Anna is healing from her illness, to be sure - but her greater sickness is the one that will not go away from a few days' rest.

Olsen's portrayal of the house's disorder and Anna's desperate cleaning have earned her much praise from feminist critics. Olsen was one of the first Communist writers and one of the first writers in general, to portray the overwhelming physical labor that stay-at-home mothers performed. Anna's vision of the household after three days of her absence is a worker's nightmare - the furnishings are falling apart, the children's clothes are filthy, dishes have piled up in the sink, the floor is muddy, and the yard is an overgrown mess. Olsen portrays household cleaning with the same style as writers like Herman Melville and Ernest Hemingway portray whaling and fording rivers, respectively. She does not merely say that Anna cleans the house, but she lists Anna's tasks and then explains how they are done. This gives Anna's work the same gravity as the men's work in Moby Dick and A Farewell to Arms; it also creates a place in that masculine canon for a writer like Olsen herself.