Yonnondio: From the Thirties

Yonnondio: From the Thirties Summary and Analysis of Chapters 3-4

Chapter Three:


For three days the Holbrooks ride across the plains of Wyoming and Nebraska. The fresh air and the dramatic colors of the sky and the earth put everyone in a good mood - Anna sings and feels "like a bride," and even Jim joins in. On the fourth day, they enter South Dakota, and their old horse Nellie refuses to move. Stubbornly, she refuses Jim's efforts until a farmer suggests that they use "the old grass-on-the-end-of-a-stick gag." This works brilliantly - Nellie runs without complaint for two hours. The gag also delights the entire family.

Suddenly a storm darkens the sky. Snow quickly follows, and Anna covers the children with blankets. Soon the snow is covering everything, including the road. The wagon gets stuck in a pool of freezing water. Jim gets off the wagon to push it out. Mazie jumps off the wagon to help. Her assistance by pushing a rock away is the crucial move that makes the wagon move. An hour later they come to a small town with a tiny hotel, where they spend the next two nights. A Swedish family runs the hotel; the wife is extremely kind to the children and Ben cries when he has to leave her.

Two days later they approach the farmlands that they will be working on. The scene is pastoral and beautiful; everyone's heart swells with hope and excitement. Anna and Jim sing as the children have happy thoughts of their own. Anna also has happy thoughts: of sending the children to school, of finally having nice things, and of working with the earth. Suddenly she remembers a twilight ritual her grandmother used to engage in, involving candles, bread, and wine. She breaks their duet to tell Jim about it.

At midnight, the Holbrooks approach their farm. They are awed by the beauty of the land and the gentle sloping hills. After some fumbling, they find their own home - a humble structure dwarfed by a large barn. They fall asleep dreaming of the future.


In this short chapter, almost a coda to the dreams of Chapter Two, we follow the Holbrooks on a peaceful, relaxing trip west. Olsen spends a great deal of this chapter describing the natural beauty of the land and the earth; it seems that the Holbrooks, with their appreciation of the beauty around them, will be able to work in harmony with the natural elements around them.

Sadly, it is not to be so, and the chapter has a few moments of foreshadowing to point this out. The Holbrooks will be working as tenant farmers - a large farmer owns all the land and rents homes and equipment to small farmers for the majority of their production. Although Olsen does not specify the particulars of such a situation, tenant farming - especially in the 1930s - was notoriously hard and rarely profitable. John Steinbeck would chronicle the struggles of tenant farming in The Grapes of Wrath, another book about this period. Like Grapes, Yonnondio shows that nature is a double-edged sword: although the earth is generous and abundant, it can also be spiteful. In Grapes, drought robs the Joads of their farm; in the third chapter of Yonnondio, a brutal storm makes it clear that nature's beauty can overwhelm the capacity of man.

But there was another element that made 1930s tenant farming so harsh, and that was the greed of people in power. Once again, Yonnondio will echo The Grapes of Wrath with its development of this theme - but not until Chapter Four. For now, it is foreshadowed with the humorous story of Nellie, the Holbrooks' tired horse. Just as Jim gets Nellie to move with the tantalizing prospect of grass on a stick, the Holbrooks will be fooled by the prospect of financial stability for their hard work on the farm. It is no accident that the storm follows the Nellie scene - it stands not just as a comedic moment in the novel but as the sign of things to come.

There has been some critical interest in Anna's memory during this chapter - is it a Jewish ritual? And what, if any, is the significance of Anna's Jewish ancestry as related to her struggles in this book? On this subject Olsen herself is silent, and it does not occupy an important part of the book, but it is something worth thinking about.

Chapter Four:


At first, all goes well. Everyone enjoys the fresh air and the hard work to be done on a farm. Food is abundant, at least in comparison to how it was in the mining town. Everything seems to be going well, except for a warning from their neighbor, Benson. Benson claims that, with tenant farming, "you cant make a go of it."

They meet lots of decent, hard-working people. Their neighbors include Benson and Missis Ellis, who is the local midwife and lives with her once-rich father, Caldwell. It is traditional to hold a big mid-summer dance in the Holbrooks' barn, and many days are spent preparing for this event. All the women come to help Anna cook and set up. Anna is so joyful that she even buys new hair ribbons for herself and Mazie. The night of the dance is lovely, and the dance itself is a great success. We see this scene through the eyes of Mazie, who believes that Anna is the loveliest woman in the room.

The summer days go quickly. From Anna and Jim, there is a sense of apprehension and tension that the children, drunk with farm life, can barely perceive. One night Mazie runs out of the house to lay by the roadside. As she is looking up at the stars, a buggy pulls up next to her - Old Man Caldwell. He gets out of the buggy and lies down beside her. They have a long conversation about the origin of the stars, and Mazie is overwhelmed by his explanations. She feels, for the first time, the expanse of the universe and the smallness of her own existence in comparison. A few days later she sees him talking to Anna on the porch, while she makes tomato preserve. He is talking about politics, economics, and the inability of the small farmer to make a living. Anna asks him if he learned this in college; his response is that his education began after he left school.

Mazie and Will go to school for the first time in the fall. At first, they are both placed in the first grade, even though Mazie is eight years old. They both learn to read quickly and are promoted a grade. The work remains too easy for them and they spend a great deal of time listening to the older students talk about exotic subjects like geography. For the first time, Mazie is aware of her own poor clothing, and she feels social shame. When things get very bad, she recites a silly poem she learned from Old Man Caldwell, and "the sadness would ebb."

One night, she runs away from home. Things are starting to sour between her mother and father again, and she is afraid. She runs down the road and through the corn fields, cutting her feet. When she sees what must be Caldwell's house, she stops and knocks on the door. Missis Ellis opens the door. Caldwell is sick, she explains, but would like to see Mazie. When Mazie enters the room, Caldwell has withered. He is obviously very ill. He pulls Mazie close and tries to give her some deathbed wisdom: "Live, don't exist. Learn from your mother, who has had everything to grind out life and yet has kept life." But as he does so, the point of view shifts and our new narrator explains that he has failed. As Mazie leaves, Caldwell calls to Bess that Mazie must have some of his books.

As Mazie enters the kitchen, she hears her father explaining that "they" are taking everything. Caldwell dies a week later; but Mazie never gets the books. Her father sells them in town for fifty cents.

The winter comes on cold and harsh. School closes, and the entire family spends the day crouching around the wood stove in the kitchen. Anna, pregnant again, lets the housework pile up. The children grow thin and ill; Jim grows angry. Alternatively, he beats the children or tells them stories and makes them toys. Quarrels are frequent.

One day Jim and Mazie find a clutch of newborn chicks outside in the snow, and Jim piles them into Mazie's apron. He instructs her to warm them up in the oven, and then he leaves. She leaves them in oven, and "[n]obody noticed when the cheep became hysterical and finally ceased." Anna moves around as if in a dream. When Jim enters, he smells the dead chicks and gets very upset. He and Anna have a serious argument. For the first time in the text, we hear them hurling insults at each other. He hits Anna and the children begin to cry; Will beats Jim with his little fists. Finally, Jim runs out of the house. The worst storm "in years" starts that same night; there is no thaw for four days. When Jim returns, ten days after he left, there is no discussion of where he went or why he returned.

Early in March, Mazie and Will wander through the woods. The earth is no longer inviting. Everything is ugly, spotted with dirty snow, and damp. The trees remind Mazie of swollen bellies and she grows nauseous. She beats up on Will. That night Jim wakes her up. Anna is in labor, and Mazie must wait up with her until Jim gets back with Missis Ellis. The nausea returns and Mazie tries to think of other things. Meanwhile, Missis Ellis returns and the birthing process begins. Mazie awakens to find Jim carrying her into the house; she has fled outside during the labor. The child is fine, although Anna's breasts have cracked, so she will have difficulty nursing.

The last paragraph is an extended, dream-like meditation. Jim is trying to convince Anna to get up and leave - presumably the farm. Jim's last words are "But you cant take it lyin down - like a dawg. You cant, Anna."


In this long chapter, we see both the wonders of farm life and how rapidly its precarious happiness can spill over. The Holbrooks' fragile hopes are crushed yet again; the fact that they are pushed out by the greed of the farm supervisor shows that they are as helpless before the greed of man as they are before the brutalities of a winter storm.

A profit-loving, unseen capitalist force pushes the Holbrooks off their farm - just like the Joads in Steinbeck's great novel. But unlike The Grapes of Wrath, which focuses on the struggle for selfhood and subjectivity under the conditions of poverty and helplessness, Yonnondio focuses on the deterioration of the family as a whole.

Women's pain is particularly important, and Olsen does not shy from showing how poor men, despite their own oppression, use their gender advantage to exacerbate women's troubles. Therefore we see the mental and physical deterioration of Anna as she suffers through yet another unwanted pregnancy. Anna's fecundity is purposely contrasted with her family's barren chances for opportunity. Her pregnancy is a reminder that for poor women, multiple pregnancies, often unwanted, serve to degrade women and to make it difficult for them to serve as good mothers to the children they already have. (Note how the death of the chicks in the oven comes right before Anna's birth.) On a smaller level, in an example meant to show how Mazie is being prepared for a life like her mother's, we see how men seek to keep education out of the hands of women - this is why Jim sells Mazie's books without consulting her.

Caldwell serves as a wisdom figure in this book. He is the sole person in this book who has knowledge of the forces that work to keep poor people subjected; he is the sole person in this book with an advanced education. Unlike more sentimental books, however, Olsen does not allow Caldwell to share his knowledge in a productive way. Instead, during the deathbed scene, Caldwell is as helpless to impart his knowledge as Mazie is to save her family from poverty and pain. By showing us Caldwell's failure, Olsen's message is that simple knowledge of the problem is ineffective - one must act, rather than simply know. Wisdom without action is impotence, and passivity is deadly.

But Caldwell does serve one other important purpose: he opens Mazie's mind to worlds she had never considered. He also validates her existence, a rare thing for a poor child and an even rarer thing for a poor girl. Both of these things help Mazie excel in school and give her a sense of courage - strong enough for her to run through the fields in the middle of the night and knock on his door.

The winter scene, with the entire family huddled in the tiny kitchen, has a cramped, terrible energy. The spectacle of the entire family, hungry and benumbed by the weather, stuck in one tiny space is startling and torturous, even for the most detached reader. One comes to understand how the lack of open space can serve as oppressor - and also how the travails of hunger, pregnancy, and desperation can combine with an enclosed space to addle poor Anna's mind. It also serves to drive Jim away, but as a man he has the freedom to leave.