Olsen began Yonnondio as a novel of protest, which may explain why many literary critics have tended to discuss the novel chiefly in terms of the genre of 1930’s proletarian fiction. This characterization of Olsen’s text seems fitting from a thematic standpoint, because the story concerns a working-class family grappling with unemployment, workplace hazards, industrial strikes, illness, and poverty. It chronicles the plight of the working poor whose circumstances constantly threaten survival. In service of this objective, the novel documents even the smallest details of life for the Holbrooks, both inside and outside the home. Olsen suggests the spirit of ordinary citizens by demonstrating the full extent of the hardships that they endure. Therefore, without idealizing characters, Olsen furnishes the reader with ways to understand their actions and responses, even their acts of cruelty and desperation.

Yonnondio is not easily classified as exclusively a proletarian novel, however, because it has other important textual dimensions. Even if viewed as a work of proletarian fiction, Olsen’s novel remains somewhat atypical of that genre of writing in the United States. Although Yonnondio registers Olsen’s rejection of the prevailing orders of industrial capitalism and agribusiness, the novel declines to offer hope (to characters or to readers) in the form of a revolution or radical transformation of those orders. Apart from the implicit suggestions that existing gender roles constrain familial relations and that unorganized and nonunion workers become subject to endless indignities, relocations, and risks, Olsen’s principled dissent stops short of establishing a specific position of political advocacy. Furthermore,...

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