” Yonnondio: From the Thirties” is a short novel by American writer Tillie Olsen. Olsen began working on the novel in the 1930s but the novel was eventually published (as an unfinished work) in 1974. Olsen refused to finish it, realizing that the work would not be as relevant 40 years later. The novel is a semi-autobiographical piece that details the lives of the Holbrook family living during the depression era of the 1920s. Olsen uses a very bleak tone while injecting fragments to break up the monotony of straightforward storytelling. Throughout the story, the narration shifts from adolescent Mazie Holbrook and an omniscient third person narrator.
The novel begins in Wyoming where Jim Holbrook works in the mines to support his family. The family consists of Jim, Anna (mother), Mazie (eldest child/narrator), Will (eldest boy), Ben (suffering a lung ailment), Jimmie, and Bess (born later on in the story). As more of the family dynamic comes into play, it is realized that Jim is a heavy drinker and regularly harasses and beats his family. During a trip to the saloon, Mazie tags along with her father. She is put in danger by an ex-miner, who was disfigured by a mine explosion, who proceeds to toss her down a mineshaft. Mazie is rescued and Jim decides it is time to leave the small Wyoming town.
The Holbrooks leave for South Dakota the following Spring to work a tenant farm. A storm briefly disrupts their trip for a few days, but the Holbrooks continue on unharmed. The family seems optimistic in their new setting and everyone is well nourished for the first time during the novel. The older kids, Mazie and Will, begin school. For both Anna and Jim, education is a very important staple that they want to ensue in their children’s lives. Mazie befriends Old Man Caldwell, the Holbrook’s neighbor. Caldwell takes an interest in Mazie and distills wisdom upon her during their brief encounters. Caldwell soon becomes ill and near death and proceeds to leave Mazie books from his collection; Jim promptly sells them. As Winter approaches, Jim realizes that they continue to remain in debt and food is running scarce. Anna is pregnant and falls ill due to her pregnancy. Jim and Anna have a marital dispute and Jim disappears from the farm, reappearing after 10 days. Anna proceeds to have the baby, Bess, the following Spring.
After the birth of Bess, Jim has plans to move the family to Omaha, Nebraska to find more work. He is hired on to work the sewers while Anna’s health continues to deteriorate and the kids become more reclusive amongst each other. The family’s home is located next to a slaughterhouse within the slums of Omaha and the protruding smell makes the family sick and restless. Following a miscarriage, Anna is bedridden for several days. Jim eventually gets a job at the slaughterhouse that earns him more money. Anna, feeling slightly better, decided to gain a job to supplement Jim’s income, in which Jim explicitly disapproves. The family survives through the Winter thanks to Anna’s extra income. The novel comes to an abrupt end with the family trying to cool off the heat wave that batters the city. Jim is on the porch asleep and soaking in water, Bess (a toddler now) bangs a lid of a jar against the floor, and Mazie and Ben listen to the radio together while Anna calls for Jim to come inside.