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Yonnondio follows the heartbreaking path of the Holbrook family in the late 1920s and the Great Depression as they move from the coal mines of Wyoming to a tenant farm in western Nebraska ending up finally on the kill floors of the slaughterhouses and in the wretched neighborhoods of the poor in Omaha Nebraska Mazie the oldest daughter in the growing family of Jim and Anna Holbrook tells the story of the family's desire for a better life – Anna's dream that her children be educated and Jim's wish for a life lived out in the open away from the darkness and danger of the mines At every turn in their journey however their dreams are frustrated and the family is jeopardized by cruel and indifferent systems


10 thoughts on “Yonnondio From the Thirties

  1. says:

    Tillie Lerner Olsen 1912 2007 was born in Wahoo Nebraska but grew up in Omaha Her parents were Russian Jewish immigrants who had been forced to flee from their country Over the years she worked at numerous odd jobs but was also a union organizer and political activist who advocated for the rights of women children racial minorities and the working poor On at least two occasions she was arrested and jailed as a result of her union activitiesAs a mother of four daughters and as a result of her activism her list of published works is a short one But what she did publish – essays short stories one novella and an unfinished novel – brought her notice particularly in the academic worldShe received nine honorary doctorates and grants from the Ford and Guggenheim foundations the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities All of this even though she had dropped out of high school at age fifteenIn 1932 when she was nineteen she began a novel about a poverty stricken family attempting to survive first in the coal mining fields of Wyoming then a year of tenant farming in South Dakota before settling in Omaha where the father first worked in the sewers and later in a meatpacking plantBecause she gave birth to her first daughter at that time and continued her activism combined with the birth of three daughters she never finished the novel Years later her husband Jack Olsen found the manuscript of the incomplete novel and it was published as an unfinished novel in 1974 under the title Yonnondio From the ThirtiesOlsen’s original intent was to write a Depression era novel but she never got that far in the story before she set it aside Thus the subtitle causes some confusion because although the novel reads like a Great Depression story it is set entirely in the 20s The subtitle does not refer to the time of the story but the time in which Olsen had written the storyNo picture poem statement passing them to the futureYonnondio Yonnondio – unlimn’d they disappear;To day gives place and fades – the cities farms factories fade;A muffled sonorous sound a wailing word is borne through the air for a momentThen blank and gone and still and utterly lost from Walt Whitman’s Yonnondio Yonnondio is the story of the Holbrooks a poor working class family in the 1920s It is only during the year on the tenant farm in South Dakota that the family experienced a shred of happiness or any optimistic hope that their future was brighter than their past But even there it was a false hope They had been warned by a neighbor when they first moved onto the farm“I tell you you can’t make a go of it Tenant farming is the only thing worse than farmin your own That way you at least got a chance a good year but tenant farmin bad or good year the bank swallows everything up and keeps you owin ‘em You’ll see” Unfortunately he was rightComing to the kitchen she heard her father’s angry voice “They’re taking all of it every damn thing The whole year slaved to nothing I owe them – some joke if it wasnt so bloody – I owin them after working like a team of mules for a year They’re wantin the cow and NellieThe bastards A whole year – now I’m owin them”It is a story of unrelenting poverty but than that it is also a story about what poverty does to families Underlying the story is a subtext in which an economic system that gives them no control over their fate creates a sense of helpless pessimism that causes them to vent their frustrations on each other And this was in the 20s a decade of relative prosperity but one that was not shared by all But it does make one wonder what she might have had to say about the economic system in the 30s if the novel had been completedThe story ends abruptly with a graphic description of the horrible working conditions in the meatpacking plant one that is remindful of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and is written in a style that brings John Dos Passos to mind Tillie Olsen wrote in an afterword“Reader it was not to have ended here but it is nearly forty years since this book had to be set aside never to come to completion“These pages you have read are all that is deemed publishable of it Only fragments rough drafts outlines scraps remain – telling what might have been”


  2. says:

    During the beginning of this work I thought of The Grapes of Wrath I wondered if Olsen had been able to complete this if it might’ve been even better than the Steinbeck Alas it is unfinished started when Olsen author of the wonderful I Stand Here Ironing” was only nineteen She worked on it intermittently over the next four or five years then stopped writing altogether—for twenty years—due to her raising and supporting her four children If her life was anything like her protagonist’s it’s no wonder her writing ceased there would’ve been no time for writing in the struggle for survivalThe story starts in a coal mining town Hoping for better the family moves to a tenant farm a too brief idyll for the children one that colors their attitude toward the next move to a meatpacking city The description of the city and the children’s bewilderment reminded me of the innovative language of John Dos Passos’ Manhattan TransferEven unfinished this work is a testament of the USA in the 1930s; a witness to the lives outer and inner of a family and communities stuck in a poverty trap; and to their heartbreaking attempts to find both without and within bits of beauty


  3. says:

    Probably if I'd read it as a novella I would have called it the best she's written If it had been completed that absolutely would have been true I started it last night and I stopped after midnight only when it was doneYONNONDIO FROM THE THIRTIES is Olsen's only novel incomplete and out of print for years It deserves better Even in its current state ending without ending it is a shocking story of the suffering of people how great dreams can fall away through no fault of the dreamer Five stars for not sweetening it or blaming the victimsIf you have read Big Rock Candy Mountain Stegnor's ripoff of 19th century women's diaries you owe it to yourself to read this stunning fragment I was researching a novel of my own I read every Western memoir and diary I could get my hands on When reading Stegnor I was shocked to find complete scenes lifted from women's writing But of course that is true of another of his booksOlsen started writing in her youth but stopped for decades while raising her children I teach her story I Stand Here Ironing though only a few students have enough history to appreciate the context of the work or even to understand the pain of the narrator This novella is closer to Upton Sinclair's exposé The Jungle than the hero centered Big Rock The title is from Walt Whitman The story is from personal experience and heart I am irritated by some reviewers whining about how this book is too sad If you want a pretty story there is plenty of gorgeous prose but no happy story here If you just want to be entertained or reassured read something else Reviewers including the one at top skip South Dakota in mentioning the travels of the family Wyoming mines the Dakotas as tenant farmers then the slaughter houses of Omaha Nebraska They work hard and it's never enough Olsen is the author of the essential Silences


  4. says:

    Some may be a bit wary of starting a novel they know to be unfinished In this case though the process definitely matters than the missing endingBeautifully and poetically written in a narrative that shifts between bouts of stream of consciousness and a regular omnipotent narration Yonnondio is a highly evocative little gift to the readerBoth set and written during the 1930s it gives insights into poverty during the depression in a way that is untainted by the brushing over and sentimentalism that sometimes accompanies memoryPartly because the focalization often goes through Mazie who is 8 or 9 years old the book opens up a child's perspective that makes it about emotional experience than reasoned analysis of what happens to the characters Nevertheless it remains unsentimental and clearly critical of the conditions endured by workersI would recommend this to anyone interested in the 1930s emotion in narrative childhood as a field of study as well as the obvious socialist and gender themes that come with the plot


  5. says:

    God this book is upsetting I recommend it to anyone interested in considering connections between families struggling to make it in America's contemporary economic repressiondepression and families struggling to get by during the economic repressionsdepressions that characterize America's past While some elements of the Holbrook family's experiences especially their life in a Midwestern meat packing city suggest that the novel's events are set during the Great Depression other elements suggest an earlier timeframe Regardless the novel describes the attempts of the Holbrook family a hardworking child bearing dream abandoning Mother a Father unmanned by his inability to adeuately care for his family and their children especially the oldest daughter Mazie upon whom the third person narrator is most focused to live during the hardest of economic times Basically the book testifies to the abject failure of a family to thrive despite the desperate willingness to work that marks most of its members It is a short lyrical and insightful read and it will stay with you long after you turn the last page partly because of its implicit claim that the first casualty of economic disaster is childhood Knowing that the book is still potentially resonant makes the book a necessity if not exactly a pleasure


  6. says:

    This book is a wonderful combination of brutal social realism and imaginative modernism with a distinctive female voice that is rare in old working class novels The book was written in the 1930s but despite the title it concerns the beleaguered Holbrooke family as they struggle throughout the 1920s from a Wyoming coal mine to a North Dakota farm to the streets of Chicago's Packingtown Mazie Holbrooke age 6 at the beginning is the center of the novel She has to watch on in horror as her father struggles for pennies or drinks himself to stupor or repents or beats his wife Anna Mazie watches too as Anna goes in and out of sanity stretches budgets gathers garbage or weeds and generally tries to keep her and her five children above water Mazie herself finds refuge in books of course but also in dreams and nightmaresAs befits of a modernist novel we get spare impressionistic glimpses of all of the family members but each seems shockingly real from the sickly and uestioning Ben to the callus Willie The book also summons the otherworldly fire and blackness of a coal mining town the beauty and brownness of a failing farm and the filth and stench of Chicago like no book I know At times the horror of the book is almost too brutal to take and the weight of suffering hard to stand Unlike other social protest novels however that weight does not merely emerge from poverty but from the hopeless and confusion and fear that are poverty's real handmaidens It's a painful and wonderful book


  7. says:

    I read this book way back in high school As I recall we were given a list of books to choose from I chose The Great Gatsby got bored switched to Yonnondio and loved it In my 20's I reread The Great Gatsby and absolutely adored it Now in my 30's I'm curious how I would compare the two booksAll I can remember about Yonnondio uite honestly is that it reminded me of A Tree Grows In Brooklyn though reviews suggest it's even darker than that I've lost tolerance for dark having lived uite enough of it Likewise I've lost some affinity with Gatsby's idealism Oh how very subjective it all is


  8. says:

    A gritty depressing look at blue collar life in the 20's and 30's Beautifully written about the harsh reality of a working class family destined for poverty their entire existence The interesting thing is that this novel was pieced together from notes and old writings yet it still is coherently heart wrenching Not a heart warming story about overcoming adversity in triumph but a really good read nevertheless


  9. says:

    Final book I wrote on for my degree Great exploration of whiteness and class


  10. says:

    The saddest book ever this is the story of a poor family that just got and poor The author's use of imagery helps the reader feel the descriptions of the Earth the skinny children the despair of poverty and hopelessness first working in the coal tunnels and the father getting much of his pay in scrip for the company store Then tenant farming and the owner taking everything he harvested yet still he oweson to the slaughterhouse work he considers himself lucky to get The air in the town is so stifling from the slaughterhouse and Benjy has asthma and can't breathe Things get worse and worse and the story remains unfinished but the reader can imagine the ragged end of this family during the depression that beat them further and further down