Themes and Meanings

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The themes in such a short and simple work are quite near the surface. Like so much of the fiction of the 1930’s, and in particular the social realist fiction influenced by the generally leftist critical ideas at work in that decade, Yonnondio focuses on the conflict between a working-class family and the overwhelming social and economic forces arrayed against them. Like the Joads in Steinbeck’s classic proletarian novel at the end of the decade, the Holbrooks are asking only to be allowed to live and work. “But there is more—” another character says: “to rebel against what will not let life be.” Olsen presents a family facing the hardships of poverty in America; in the rest of this unfinished novel, she would have shown the children fighting against that poverty and injustice in the 1930’s. Olsen is no propagandist in Yonnondio (although her prose, especially in the early pages, can be didactic), but she reveals that the Holbrooks’ condition hardly results from their own actions or inactions. These people are clearly the victims of a capitalist system that, at the least, exploits its workers for profit without concern for their safety, and, at its worst, poisons even the social and domestic relations among them. Yet the focus in Yonnondio is on the Holbrook family, not on the larger society, and rarely in 1930’s fiction were relationships among family members rendered with such graphic clarity.

The strong presence of Anna Holbrook and the emergent character of her young daughter Mazie (who, like the protagonist of Call It Sleep, will grow up to write this novel), are positive counterpoints to the oppressive social conditions in the novel. In spite of all the poverty and suffering, in spite of the brutalization of individual workers and whole families, something in the human spirit endures. In Olsen’s lyric prose there is both an indictment of a system that can brutalize people in this way and an optimism that a character such as Mazie Holbrook will survive.