“Yonnondio: From The Thirties” is a short novel by American writer Tillie Olsen. Olsen began working on the novel in the 1930s but it was eventually published as an unfinished work in 1974. Olsen refused to finish it, realizing that the work would not be the same 40 years later. The novel is a semi-autobiographical piece that details the lives of the Holbrook family living during the 1920s Depression Era. The novel begins in Wyoming where Jim Holbrook works in the minds 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 later, Bess. The family is constantly on the move with Jim having to look for steady work often. Olsen has intricately woven a somber and bleak tone that coexists with a dour setting to affect the reader differently with each character.
This is evident in one of Olsen’s more ethereal parts of the book where Mazie is sent by Anna to fetch a pail of cooking lard. During her trip back with the pail, Mazie is daydreaming of life on the farm, complete with vivid sensations of isolation and solidarity, only to be brought back to reality by the pungent aura and denizens of the town they currently reside in. I found this part of the book profound and strongly personal because of the way it encapsulated my own stressful times of being without a home and living within an open world of vileness, while at the same time creating my own unique reality within my own mind. Olsen takes advantage of Mazie’s innocence as a child and uses this with her imagery and dour tone to garner empathy to Mazie’s situation of living within herself rather than with herself.
Although a reader’s response has long been an important value when taking an author’s work and analyzing it, Reader Response Criticism (RRC) recognizes such ideas and the content takes on realism when a reader actually responds to its text. Some important formal elements of RRC include affect, effect, anticipation, expectation, implied reader and subjective response. These formal elements are important in that they help the reader grasp the many different concepts of the text and help personify the text into intellectual and educated prose. By utilizing these important formal elements of RRC, the reader can personalize the work and gives insight into the author’s intentions as well as what the author did to make them feel a particular way.
Later on in the story, after the birth of Bess, Jim has plans to move the family to Omaha to find more work. He is hired on to work the sewers while Anna falls more ill and the kids become more reclusive amongst each other. The family’s home is located next to a slaughterhouse within the slums of the city and the obtrusive smell makes the family sick and restless. During one of her many sick spell, Anna sends Mazie to obtain the pail of cooking lard (on credit as they have no money) for dinner. As Mazie returns she is overcome with fond memories of the farm the family previously lived on as well as the connected feelings of freedom. These warm feelings of the farm take her away from the reality that is Omaha:
“Clutching a pail of lard, dreaming a sweet dream of twilight on the farm and darkening over a fragrant world, her face not shadowed by the buildings above, her nostrils not twitching with the stink in the air, her eyes not bewildered be the seething of people about her, dreaming the sweet dream unutterable…” (98 Olsen).
But, just as Olsen gives Mazie something dear and meaningful to relish, she also proceeds to remind her of the reality that awaits her outside of her thoughts. Olsen uses a brash interruption to transport Mazie back from her thoughts by using a physical force from her surroundings, “…a hard body crashed into her and a voice thundered:
‘Whynt you look where you’re going, stinking little bitch,’ and she was pushed in the stomach, punched down sprawling, a drunken breath in her nostrils” (98).
Reading these passages, I was transported back to hard times in my life where the daily struggle of sitting in one spot and just breathing was a very difficult tasks on its own. I would take myself away from the scorching heat of the day or the bitter coldness of night by reliving past experiences of better days and looking to the future for reassurance. It was much easier to rely on myself and my thoughts than to be let down by the many blundering denizens of the outside world. During my preoccupied day-dream, time seemed to stop. It was easy to slip into a reverie and not live within the real world. I was able to do this just like Mazie. And, like Mazie, it was very easy to be disrupted back into reality with a blaring horn of a passing car, the skittering of a bug upon my arm, or my body finally succumbing to the fatigue of a hard day’s work. Olsen requires Mazie to stay within the present so as to not become a casualty of her own daydreams. Mazie can become so enraptured within herself, that Olsen can do nothing but physically sever the tie between Mazie and her dream. This is where the environment comes into play and physically inserts itself into the connection. This gives Mazie all the more reason to rely on her fond memories of the farm and escape from the dangerous reality of the town she now resides in.
As I went back to the passage of Mazie’s walk, I read in a more earnest manner then before, having been carried away by the darkness of my past coupled with the bitter somberness I felt for her. I was very much taken away by the solemn tone and description of the dark settings Mazie found herself in. Not only did Olsen create a scene where I felt similarities with Mazie’s character, but she also gave life to the town and surroundings. I believe it was this reason that the passage had a profound effect on me as well. Much like me, Mazie is a dreamer. The dreams can take a person away to far reaches of bliss and tranquility yet at the same time, the dreams can annihilate their existence by leaving them vulnerable to the many dangers of the outside world…the real world.
The many dangers and strange occurrences that Mazie faces during her walk from the store to home affect her in many different ways. For example, Olsen writes,
“A wet was on her cheek, not blood, but a blob of spit she had fallen into. Feeling it, shuddering awoke her veins. She struggled to get up. Harsh, the pavement grated against her. It was real then. She moved a hand over the walk. Yes it was real” (99).
The initial interruption of her daydream was a physical knockdown by an unknown stranger of the town. The disturbance of her dream and the wetness upon her face, brought her into the horrible memory of Sheen McEvoy and his delirious attempt at sending her down a coal mine to her death. The only way for Mazie to compose herself and break out of the unwanted, nightmarish memory was to slip back into reality by taking in her surroundings. By touching the walkway, she was reminded that she was in Omaha and not in the arms of Sheen.
The imagery of the many occurrences seemed to beckon Mazie to dream more in order to escape from the hellish surroundings she found herself in. Olsen writes,
“Mazie ran. She fell. Here near the top of the street, she could see the shattered sun die in a sky of bruises over the decayed line of houses and buildings” (100).
This passage paints a bleak portrait of Mazie’s reality supplanted into a vision of desolation and claustrophobia. It is here that Mazie tries to express a more pleasant thought by going back to the farm,
“Beautiful, suspended, the farm, softened by twilight floated an instant before her eyes” (100).
But once again, Olsen conveys the fact that dreaming into the outskirts of reality leads to an unpleasant reentry into her surroundings.
Mazie’s character, as a whole, (with a heavy nod to the passage of her walking home in a trance) thoroughly connected with me. Olsen made it easy to connect with Mazie by giving her something pure and innocent to dream for. Where other little girls would dream for the proverbial pony, candy, or other such trivial material, Mazie dreams of a simple life with Earth’s simple pleasures. And this is where mine and Mazie’s similarities come into play. When you have nothing and are given nothing, it’s the simple things that are yearned for. Mazie’s dark descent into her brutal reality is not a light-hearted affair. Olsen knew this and because she knew, it was easy to give Mazie the courage and sanity to delve deep into her own desires while braving the world around.
Lynn, Steven. Texts and Contexts: Writing about Literature with Critical Theory. New York, N.Y. [u.a.: Pearson Longman, 2008. Print.