Matriarch of the Holbrook family. She shares the majority of the story with her eldest child, Mazie. Once pretty, she has been weakened and demoralized by a life of poverty and hardship. Violence is a central fact of her life--she suffers beatings from her husband, Jim, and although she loves her children fiercely, she also beats them. But she remains the backbone of the family. When she falls ill in Chapter Six, it takes the entire household, plus the help of a neighbor, to keep the home functioning. Uneducated and unaware of the larger forces that have kept her family downtrodden, she instinctively pushes her children towards the thing that she knows will make them succeed: education. Not an untainted angel, as some feminist critics have argued, Anna is a realistically beaten woman. Still, her enjoyment of life's small pleasures in the face of incredible obstacles inspires the book's other characters, including Caldwell, to respect and admire her.
Anna's husband and the day laborer of the Holbrook household. Six days a week, he toils for low wages at dangerous, exhausting jobs. Because of the stress of these jobs, combined with his own shame at being unable to adequately support his family, he drinks heavily. When he is drunk, he often abuses Anna and the children. But he can also be tender and compassionate, and, like Anna, he loves his children. His main goals are to find a job where he can earn a decent living without suffering bodily harm, and to provide his family with material comforts. Unfortunately, he often inflicts oppression on Anna because of her role as his wife, although Olsen takes great pains to blame not just Jim but the entire economic system he labors under.
The three-year saga of Yonnondio is also a story of young Mazie's growth and precocious development. She shares the responsibility of narration with her mother, Anna. Forced to grow up far faster than she should, Mazie understands violence, poverty, and despair before she understands how to read. Like her mother, she lashes out at the only people she can: in her case, it is typically her younger brothers. She exhibits signs of mental illness as early as eight years old; there is little doubt that her family's circumstances have affected her profoundly. If Anna is the Holbrooks' current embodiment of poverty and struggle, then Mazie is her understudy. She serves as an example of how the tragedies of poverty are passed on from generation to generation.
The second eldest Holbrook child. Sullen, defiant, and skeptical, he reacts to his family's instability and destitution by creating his own worlds on the street. Even at his young age, he understands the patriarchal order: he is often heard telling Mazie what girls can and cannot do.
The third Holbrook child. Sweet, shy, and retiring, he tends to stay home and look out for his mother and father rather than run around in the streets like Will and Mazie. He is desperate for love. Both Anna and Jim sense this and make a special effort to be kind to him.
The fourth Holbrook child. He plays a minor role during most of the book, although he is a frequent whipping post for Will and Mazie.
Anna's last child. Anna is pregnant with Bess during the difficult winter on the farm; she has a difficult birth and an even more difficult nursing period with Bess. The baby suffers from numerous illness and is greatly neglected during the early period of her life. Nonetheless, she has a triumphant moment at the end, when she learns how to make a noise with a fruit-jar lid. The final scene with Bess has provoked a great deal of critical comment.
A kindly Polish neighbor who helps the Holbrooks' in Chapters Six and Seven, when Anna is recovering from her miscarriage.
Old Man Caldwell
Yonnondio's wisdom figure. He was once very wealthy and was fortunate enough to get a college education, but he abandoned all of that to live a simple life on the farm with his daughter, Missis Ellis. He is gentle, kind, and attentive to Mazie. One night he lies beside her on the side of the road and tells her about the stars and the universe. On his deathbed, he tries to impart some of his wisdom on her, but failing to do so in a way that she will understand, he wills some of his books to her.
Mazie's worldly twelve-year-old friend in Chapter Eight. Ginella introduces Mazie to the world of feminine fantasy and consumption. Around Mazie and other young girls, she preens and performs, but she is really a poor Polish immigrant who yearns for "class."
A crippled, epileptic girl who lives in the packinghouse slums. Her family frightens her with fundamentalist Christian teachings and beats her. She frightens all the children in the neighborhood, especially Mazie.
A former miner. His newest occupation is that of the town drunk. He lost his face and his mind during an explosion in the mine. His solution for the destruction of the mine is to sacrifice Mazie. Fortunately, he is stopped in his execution of this task.
Jim's fellow worker in the sewer operations. Young and hotheaded, he snubs the impossible demands of the boss, only to find himself jobless and hungry for years until he winds up on a Florida chain gang.
The young son of Chris Kvaternick, who died in the mines. Jim trains him to be a worker in the mine when he is thirteen years old.
Old friends of the Holbrooks. They have done well for themselves. Although they help Jim find a job when the family arrives in the packinghouse slum, they belong to different classes and their relations are awkward.
Caldwell's daughter. Bright and cheerful, she is also the local midwife.
The Holbrooks' neighbor and fellow farmer. He warns them upon their arrival that it is impossible to make a living as tenant farmers.
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.