The Pre-Depression Era: Though this novel was written during the Great Depression, the main plot of the story takes place during the 1920s. Though the themes of the great depression are visible in the family’s struggles and tribulations, as Burkom and Williams put it, Yonnondio actually represents the 1920s more realistically than The Great Gatsby by F. Scott Fitzgerald which shows the life of the stereotypical flappers of the time. By exploring the lives of the working class, the novel portrays a “realistic depiction of the squalid conditions in which the unknown of America’s working class miraculously endure." Had the novel been completed, it would have more precisely represented the depression era via the characters planned involvement in the proletarian movement.
Motherhood: Motherhood is a central theme throughout Yonnondio because the main perspective, that of Mazie, is watching and commenting on her mother, Anna. As Deborah Rosenfelt put it, the novel focuses on: “the unparalleled satisfaction and fulfillment combined with the overwhelming all-consuming burden of motherhood.” Mazie watches Anna work tirelessly as a wife and mother, giving her health and happiness up for the benefit of her children. To accomplish her goal, Anna finds herself doing whatever is necessary (working extra jobs, finding alternative food sources, and ruining her health) no matter how extreme. To Mazie, motherhood is seen as a great sacrifice a mother gives to her children; yet, there are times when her responsibilities overlap causing the opposite effect. Due to the many chores and financial obligations of Anna, the children are often left to wander about freely without supervision, because Anna is mentally unable to care for them, putting them into danger.
Nightmares: This aspect of the novel revolves around the idea of living in constant fear of not having food or enough money, not being able to escape their lives, or dying in the coal mines. The characters are in a constant state of worry and frustration which begins from the first sentence: “[t]he whistles always woke Mazie” (1). Each day they are reminded, awoken to the sound of death from the mines: the likely fate of every male worker in the town. Mazie, as a girl, also has a close encounter of being consumed by the mine when a miner tries to throw her into a cavern. According to Bonnie Lyons: “the miner imagines the mine as a ravenous woman [. . .] [and] the fact that the miner sees woman as devourer rather than nurturer demonstrates the extremity of his condition, a result of the economic and social conditions in general.” The characters are caught in a nightmare caused by their circumstances—leading to the next theme.
Capacity vs. Circumstances: One of the major ideas of the novel is that the Holbrook family’s behavior is not instinctive, but an outgrowth of their living situation: their circumstances. These include poverty, education, working conditions, patriarchy and space; that is to say, with a few changes, their lives could be greatly improved, and violence and despair would decrease. This theme also refers to the novel itself which was to have the children grow up to become activists and escapee their drudgery. Mazie, and her brother, were: “to go west [. . .] become organizers [. . .] [and write about] the experiences of her people.” The circumstances of Olsen's life caused the novel to be compiled in the 1970s left in its unfinished state.