This theme is particularly well-developed in the scenes with Mazie and Ginella in Chapter Eight. The desire for exotic luxuries and material goods is particularly well-developed among young impoverished girls, because these things serve to soften the blows of their everyday reality. Unfortunately, these are also the girls who are the least able to obtain these goods, and they frequently lapse into dreams and fantasies of romance and "class," like Ginella does. The American economy's dependence on consumerism and consumer desire is also reflected in Jim's determination to obtain "things" for his family. Be it cod-liver oil, electric lights, or a sewing machine, Jim tends to view progress as a collection of goods rather than an increase in spiritual prosperity or mental stability.
The peculiar oppression of poor women is one of the major outstanding themes of Yonnondio; Olsen's handling of this subject is what most critics are interested in. Although this is a story about the impoverished and marginalized people of America, it is also a story about Anna and Mazie. Over and over, they suffer doubly under the yokes of poverty and womanhood: Mazie is almost thrown to the mine because of a crazed man's insistence that the mine wants a "pretty baby"; Anna is raped by her own husband; Mazie has to work while her younger brother Will gets to play outside. In ways large and small, the women of Yonnondio form an alternative picture to the male-centered Communist literature of the 1930s.
Space is a strong element of the theme of patriarchy. It is a constant frustration to both Mazie and Anna that they have almost no space to themselves. The younger boys have their rooms and the streets to play in, Jim comes and goes as he pleases, and jobs that involve travel are reserved for boys. Anna spends most of her days cooped up in the house. Her confinement is particularly difficult during their winter on the farm, when she is not only locked in the house with all the children, but pregnant as well. It is no accident that Anna's biggest moment of happiness comes while she is wandering the streets in search of dandelions, with no boundary lines to tie her down.
Nature is two-sided in this book. On one hand, it nourishes and nurtures the Holbrook children. It is uplifting and beautiful in Chapter Three, and it brings great joy to Anna and her children in Chapter Seven. On the other hand, however, nature is cruel and spiteful. The winter on the farm is terrifying and oppressive; the heat in the last chapter of the book creates death, chaos, and destruction. Olsen blames capitalist greed for much of nature's spite; man's inability to work in harmony with his environment creates much of the trouble we see in this book.
In Chapter Four, Anna is pregnant, in a stupor, while her children thin and wane and her husband loses all of his job prospects. In such a barren environment, her pregnancy is almost a joke, and indeed Olsen means to contrast Anna's fertility with her family's deprivation. Over and over, we see Anna degraded and weakened by miscarriages and unwanted pregnancies - as many poor women are, according to Olsen's argument.
Anna sees education as a way for her children to escape their present situation. Therefore, she pushes it on them at every opportunity, even though she is unable to educate them herself. (Mazie does not learn to read until she is eight years old.) Although the children are bright, they do not do well in school. This is due to many causes: malnourishment, poverty, humiliation, and most of all, the attitude of the educational system that seeks to discourage poor people from learning.
Fundamentally, this is a book about work and the people who work. As one follows Jim from unskilled job to unskilled job, one must notice that each of his exhausting, demanding jobs actually demands a great deal of skill, adaptability, and determination. Anna's labor is similarly exhausting and overwhelming, and Olsen strives to present "women's work" as equal in importance and exertion to men's work. The idea of "labor" is also central to the book's politics. In its concern for the hardships of the working man, the book is a strong statement against the excesses of laissez-faire capitalism.
Anna becomes obsessed with cleanliness, germs, and disease after her illness in Chapter Six. She makes a heroic effort to keep her house and her children clean; the fact that she fails is meant to stand as yet another argument against the economic system that keeps people in poverty. Some critics have seen Olsen's emphasis on cleanliness as evidence of the Communist Party's puritanical leanings during the 1930s.
A crucial theme. At its essence, this theme can be explained by this formula: Poverty + Helplessness + Frustration = Violence. Violence is an everyday event in this book. Men regularly beat women and children; mothers hurt their children; and the children beat each other. On the job, violence occurs in the form of unsafe working conditions and deadly disasters like the mine explosion in Chapter Two. And, of course, the neighborhood commits violence against each other. Violence is particularly bad in urban areas. In the last chapters of the book, the children are exposed to terrifying acts of violence when they venture into the streets on errands. Violence becomes a way for the Holbrook children to understand their places in society and even the love of their parents.
Health (Mental, Physical)
There is a great deal of physical illness in this book. Mazie falls ill after McEvoy tries to throw her down the mine, Anna suffers an exhausting miscarriage, and the children become sick from the stench of the packinghouse. Some of the minor characters have suffered even more horrendously: McEvoy, with his face of jelly, and Erina, the crippled epileptic. All of these physical illnesses are directly or indirectly brought about by poverty. Just as important as the physical illness of this book is the mental illness, which cannot be cured nearly as fast. Nearly all of the characters experience a great deal of psychological and emotional suffering because of their circumstances.
One of the most terrifying parts of this book is Olsen's description of the working conditions for low-wage laborers. With the exception of the farm, Jim labors long hours under extremely dangerous conditions. Olsen describes the safety hazards in detail and does not shy from condemning land owners, corporations, and businessmen for their role in promoting these dangerous working conditions.
Unlike other Communist books of the 1930s, Olsen chose to focus her narrative on the family unit and women's role within that family unit. One of the biggest tragedies of this book is not the poverty itself: it is what poverty does to families, and how it crumbles their ability to support and nurture each other. Anna, for example, is clearly concerned about her children. But because she is frustrated, deprived, and unable to protect them from the stresses of life, she beats them. Likewise Jim shows signs of compassion and caring, but he is too exhausted, frustrated, and above all, ashamed, to be a good husband and father. Olsen's point is that impoverished families, rendered helpless by an economic system that denies them a voice, lash out at each other because there is no one else to vent their frustrations on.
Yonnondio is an unusual book with an unusual story: it is a "recovered" text, incomplete, pieced together years after its composition. Its narrative jumps, jolts, and switches in perspective reflect its history, although the interesting thing about these jumps are that it allows the reader more room to maneuver within the text and participate in the story. At times the narrative style matches the feelings and problems of its characters, and it is ironic that Olsen matches an incomplete book with a set of characters whose hopes, dreams, and desires are always curbed.
Yonnondio: From the Thirties Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Yonnondio: From the Thirties is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.