Yonnondio: From the Thirties

Yonnondio: From the Thirties Summary and Analysis of Chapters 7-8

Chapter Seven:


Jim takes safety shortcuts at work in order to save money. All day while he works, he feels the weight of Anna's questions about the well-being of their children. Anna is up and about, but her mental health has not quite caught up to her physical strength: her moods vacillate frequently, and she snaps at Jim when he offers to help in the house. The children are rowdy and Anna neglects the house to work in the garden.

Anna begins doing laundry for other people. Jim is annoyed that she took on an extra job while the house goes untended and while she is still recovering from her illness. She also wants to pay a dollar a week for an installment educational plan for the children; he vetoes her desire. Anna and Ben have a close relationship; as she goes about her laundry tasks she delights him with stories about exotic lands. When he asks if he can see them, she responds that perhaps he can: "Boys get to do thatŠnot girls."

During rent week, there is no food in the house besides potatoes and flour. Anna hankers after greens. She leaves Bess with Else Kryckski and takes Mazie, Will, and Ben on a hunt through the streets for dandelions. The lots near their homes are weedy and rarely do they come upon young, healthy plants. As they wander the streets, Mazie grows aware of a feeling from Anna: "the strangenessŠnot like the sickness strange, something else." Anna blows dandelions, makes dandelion chains, laughs, and pops one of their paper bags. The other children are delighted by their mother's mood, but Mazie watches with skepticism.

They wander out of their neighborhood and into a different one - "[l]awns, flower beds and borders, children on bikes." Mazie tries to keep her brothers from playing with the other children or wandering off; she feels instinctively that they are in the wrong place. She tries to tell Anna, but Anna is oblivious. The inhabitants of the neighborhood view them with amusement that Mazie resents.

At the end of a street they come upon a lot near the river that is overgrown with flowers and dandelions. They set to collecting the dandelions, while Mazie stays as far away as she possibly can. Periodically, she tries to tell her mother that they are in the wrong place and ought to leave. Anna chats easily, ignoring Mazie's urgent demands. Mazie grows afraid when she notes " a remote, shining look" on Anna's face, "as if she had forgotten them." But Anna keeps picking flowers, and she begins to sing. When she sees Mazie, Anna draws her close, and Mazie, "[feeling] the strange happiness in her mother's body," relaxes with happiness of her own.

Suddenly, the wind shifts, and a packinghouse smell overwhelms the area. The whole family tenses. Mazie's happiness disappears and Anna looks up as if waking from a dream. Abruptly she is aware of the time, and quickly hustles up the children to go home.


This short, strange chapter mirrors Chapter Three - both serve as brief respites from the terrible conditions of the Holbrooks' lives. The difference in this chapter is that Mazie, hardened by all that she has suffered, is now able to understand that a respite is just that - a brief interlude of peace, and one that will not suffice to erase the realities of class struggle. This time the struggle takes place on a social level - Mazie's realization that they are in the "wrong" neighborhood. She knows that her family is vulnerable to humiliation from the wealthier people of the neighborhood and seeks to protect them by returning to the slum.

Olsen captures Mazie's resentment, humiliation, and fear quickly and skillfully with just a few sentences and phrases: "'Just you keep your face to yourself, lady,' Mazie muttered furiously in her head." Mazie feels "[a] vague shame" and "a weedy sense of not belonging." Her repeated insistence, "Ma, this isn't the way" shows both Mazie's concern for the psychological well-being of her family and her unspoken acceptance of the message that poor people like her family cannot find the way into the middle class.

This chapter also develops the theme of space, and its role in keeping women trapped in a patriarchal order. As Anna tells Ben, "boys" get to explore the world, while girls must remain at home. As if to signal his approval of this sorry state of affairs, Ben urges Anna to go inside the house: " ŒWe got to go in. It's suppertime. Mommas always goes in.' "

And it is no accident that Anna's strange joy comes when she is outside of her house, wandering free through the streets in search of flowers. Although the children are present, Anna has little awareness of them. " ŒI don't remember since when I been out just walkin like this,'" Anna says, as her face fills with joy. Freed from the confines of the house, her spirit comes alive again. She even manages to turn the skeptical Mazie around, at the very end of the chapter. But then, the symbol of her poverty and entrapment ensnares her - that packinghouse smell. The smell shatters the peace of this bucolic scene and reminds Anna that freedom is not to be hers. She must return to the confines of her house and her place as a woman in a patriarchal order.

Chapter Eight:


July comes, and with it a series of strange rites - "the children of packingtown turnŠ.to deeper, more ancient play. On the dump, territory is established, shifted, abandoned, fought over, combinedŠstrange structures riseŠ.On the streets, strange vehicles moveŠ"

Jim gets a new job as a feeder and utility man at the packinghouse. The new job will mean a bigger paycheck and chances for advancement. Jim is ecstatic and visualizes a better future for his family - soon. To celebrate, he buys fireworks for the Fourth of July. Although Anna is concerned about the money he spent, the children are rowdily approving. Their neighbors come to celebrate, and the scene is one of merriment and excitement. Only Mazie, left out of the celebrations because of her gender - "Girls don't get firecrackers, do they, Poppa" - watches the lights and noises with a mixture of fear and sullenness.

Things improve for a little while: for the first time, Jim makes insurance payments and begins looking for a secondhand sewing machine for Anna. Anna takes the children to the slum's dilapidated library and gets each of them a library card. Unfortunately the children, except for Ben, get little out of their books. They get more out of their scavenging trips to the dump and their petty burglaries from the ice truck. Mazie participates in the ice-truck runs until the boys tease her; then she discovers friendship with Ginella, an older girl. Ginella has her own tent on the dump, a "pagan island" elaborately decorated with "[a]nything that dangles, jangles, bangles, spangles." Ginella introduces Mazie to a world of feminine consumer fantasy: movies like The Sheik of Araby and exotic romance stories.

On the steps outside their home, the children sing and make up rhymes. Meanwhile, a heat wave hits the slum. For six days the temperature does not dip below one hundred degrees. At the packinghouse, the workers toil under the brutal heat and unsafe conditions. At home, the children alternate between sweaty sleeplessness and terrible nightmares. Mazie has a nightmare about Erina, a crippled epileptic girl who lives in the neighborhood.

At seven a.m., Jim is at work in the packinghouse - it is 104 degrees outside and 112 degrees in the casings section. The workers suffer with the heat and the "Beedo" system - a "speed-up" system introduced in the 1920s to squeeze the most out of each worker each day. Only women work in casings; even men will not work there. Olsen describes the work and the conditions in great detail.

Mazie wakes up "feeling charred and smoldering." Anna needs her help canning apples and peaches, but Mazie wheedles her into letting her go play. Anna consents, on the condition that Mazie returns before noon. Mazie runs into her friend Annamae; the two girls play listlessly until Will runs by with one of his friends. Mazie asks to join Will, he sneers at "tattletale girls" and runs off. Along with other young girls, they visit Ginella in her tent, but the older girl is cruel to them. Suddenly Erina appears. She asks the girls for pennies, so that she may buy an ice cream. When they refuse, she terrifies them with predictions about God's vengeance. She also weeps and slobbers about her own twisted body: "God made me like this." The other girls run away and Mazie is left to listen to Erina's tales of fire, brimstone, and woe. When Erina finally leaves, Mazie feels nauseous and upset.

Still feeling sick, Mazie picks on her younger brothers Ben and Jimmie. Jimmie runs wailing into the house, and Mazie follows him with her own protestations of anger and fury. She lashes out at Anna for constantly making her work in the house; then she discovers that Anna has thrown away her precious, handmade "perfume" and demands to know why she has "no place." Finally, Mazie runs away again, despite Anna's efforts. The other children continue to shriek and wail and pose complaints. It is noon, and 106 degrees.

Back at the packinghouse, the workers are suffering. Workers who had attempted to relieve themselves of the heat by slipping into cooler areas for a moment, or hosing themselves down, are ratted on and punished. Some workers faint, others vomit because of the stench. They all help each other as much as they can. One worker suffers a heart attack. He is borne away, docked, and charged for the company ambulance. When one of the workers tries to slow the pace of the assembly line, the foreman screams at them and threatens to dock their pay.

People suffer all over the neighborhood. An older woman dies in the heat. Erina, trudging home to a beating, has a brief moment of delight in watching a bird bathe itself. Ginella, ill, goes home to her poor Polish parents and bemoans the fact that she cannot be "classy" because of her family circumstances. In the Holbrooks' kitchen, Anna works alone. All the children except for Will are in the house, bathed in sweat, trying to sleep. In between her canning work, Anna sponges them off.

Mazie does not wake until after five in the evening. Anna shakes her awake, afraid that she has been asleep too long. The other children are all awake, and feeling better, if listless. Jim enters the house and goes straight for the water bucket without a word of greeting. He douses himself and the entire house while Anna shouts to know what is wrong.

Jim falls into an exhausted sleep. Anna, holding Ben, sings and tells him stories. Bess grabs ahold of a fruit-jar lid and begins slamming it down, over and over again. Anna and all the children, startled by this noise, laugh uproariously: "Heat misery, rash misery transcended."

Will runs into the house with a homemade radio and a borrowed crystal set. For the first time, the family hears a radio. Mazie, "floating on her pain," is entranced. Anna looks outside and sees a dust storm rising; she goes outside to wake Jim. He is too dazed at first to move, but then Anna helps him. She insists that she sees an end to the bad weather and urges him to come inside.


The final chapter of Yonnondio contrasts a foray into the life of work at a packinghouse with the terror of life at home. Olsen jumps back and forth between these two scenes, heightening both the tension and the contrast, and making it clear how they are meant to stand in direct relation to each other. Jim toils under physical danger and is forced to watch as his fellow workers and friends fall prey to the conditions in the workhouse. Mazie is safe physically, but she is in acute psychological danger and suffers from a greater knowledge of her debased role in the economic system and the social structure.

The chapter's action is pushed to a new level of drama by the heat. Suddenly, all of the other elements of life in a slum: the cramped conditions, the lack of sanitation, and most especially the stench become that much more unbearable. The slum truly becomes an inferno; Erina's predictions of apocalypse have real relevance.

Regarding the packinghouse, Olsen describes the activity going on much as the way a worker would see it, coming down an assembly line: "the kill room: knockers, shackles, pritcher-uppers, stickers, headers, rippers, leg breakersŠ." She adds small details that describe what makes conditions so dangerous: "[s]lippery uncertain footing on the slimy platform. Treacherous sudden torrents swirlingŠ" Everything is written in a quick, breathless fashion that mirrors the speed at which the workers are moving. The speed of the prose, combined with knowledge of the heat and the boss' brutal demands evoke great concern and sympathy from the reader: will Jim be all right? Will anyone die? With her portrayal of Marsalek, the worker who suffers a heart attack, Olsen does not shy away from the subject of death. What truly makes his heart attack a tragedy is the greed and insensitivity of the company regarding treatment of the workers.

Mazie's friend Ginella introduces Mazie to female consumer fantasy: a world of exotic places and gigolos and romance. These fantasies, which were extremely popular during the Depression in particular, were particularly dangerous for young, impoverished women, who became easily entranced by worlds that were so different from their harsh realities. Olsen deliberately contrasts the imagined luxury of Ginella's worlds with the world of young women at the packinghouse in order to show how far apart the two worlds were. Even before Mazie and Ginella are old enough to work, the worlds of Araby and Rudolph Valentino are far from their realities: as Olsen demonstrates, Mazie's life is closer to Erina's fire and brimstone tales, and Ginella's home life is shoddy and demoralizing.

The ending of Yonnondio is the subject of much critical debate and conjecture. Bess, the baby, learns to slam the fruit-jar lid on the table, making a loud noise. While she slams it, the narrator describes Bess's achievement as thus: "I can doŠI achieve, I use my powers; I! I!" Some critics read this as Olsen's final remark about the triumph of the human spirit over adversity; a relief, after so much misery, to a happy belief in the individual will. It is important to resist this belief. Yonnondio is an unfinished text, and if we are to believe Olsen, there were to be scenes of even greater misery following this chapter. It is impossible to comment on parts of the text that do not exist, but it is possible to say that the reader must not take the ending of the story at face value. Instead, the reader must remember that the story of the Holbrooks is only partially complete.