The manuscript of Yonnondio: From the Thirties was lost to Tillie Olsen for more than thirty years before being accidentally discovered by her husband, who was looking for other papers. A portion of the novel had been published in 1934 in The Partisan Review, a journal devoted to socialist writing. Although the story was well received by critics, Olsen never completed the novel. Instead, she reared a family of four children and worked at part-time jobs for most of her adult life until the 1961 publication of Tell Me a Riddle. This collection of stories led to the discovery of Tillie Olsen as a major literary talent, and it made the publication of Yonnondio an important addition to her works. Olsen decided not to add to or substantially revise the manuscript. At the conclusion of the eight chapters of this unfinished novel, Olsen adds the following note: “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.”
The title is taken from a poem by Walt Whitman called “Yonnondio.” In the poem, Whitman laments the passing of the great American Indian nations in the face of the white man’s advance. After recalling the contributions of these peoples, Whitman concludes the poem, “Then blank and gone and still, and utterly lost.” That line could serve as a description of the middle years of Olsen’s career: Although she began to develop her art in the 1930’s, circumstances led to her being silenced as a writer for more than twenty years.
The novel depicts the experiences of Jim and Anna Holbrook and their family. Jim is an itinerant laborer who struggles to find a decent job, first in a coal mine in Wyoming, then on a tenant farm in North Dakota, and finally in a meatpacking house in Omaha, Nebraska. No matter where Jim works, he never earns enough to make ends meet. He feels trapped in a recurring cycle of poverty and desperation. He loves his wife and children but feels trapped by them because they represent a limit to his freedom as a man and an insurmountable financial burden. He begins to drink excessively, abuses his wife, and neglects his children.
Anna tries to be responsive to his misery, but she is overwhelmed with the duties of homemaking and child care, and she often faces bouts of depression. She suffers from physical exhaustion and experiences a miscarriage. Anna wants her children to have a better life than Jim and she have had, and she values education as one way the children might improve their lot in life. The children, however, have few opportunities for education. Anna often experiences stress over the narrow limitations of her role as a woman. An old man in the novel characterizes her as a woman who “has had everything to grind out life...
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The plot of this short novel is simple and incomplete. Jim and Anna Holbrook and their growing family move from a small Wyoming mining town to a farm in South Dakota and finally to Omaha, Nebraska, always in search of work and the elusive realization of their dreams for a settled and secure life. Their quest is frustrated at every turn by the power of circumstance: by bad weather and worse luck and by the social and economic forces that are beyond their control in the West of the 1920’s. In Wyoming, a drunken miner tries to throw Mazie down a mine shaft to appease the fierce gods he believes inhabit that dark place—and falls in himself instead. In South Dakota, they cannot work hard enough to make their small tenant farm profitable. In Omaha, after months of working in sewers for subsistence wages, Jim finally gets work in a meat-packing house—and Anna has a miscarriage and nearly dies. The novel breaks off abruptly at this point, where Tillie Olsen stopped writing it in 1937. She had planned to follow the lives of Mazie and her brother Will into the 1930’s and to show the influence of these early years as the two became adults in the struggles of the Depression. When she rediscovered and reassembled the manuscript in the early 1970’s, however, she decided to add “no rewriting, no new writing,” as she explains in a note at the end. The novel is thus a brilliant fragment, evocative but finally incomplete.
Like many other proletarian novels of the 1930’s, Yonnondio describes the migration or flight from farm and town to the city, as families searched and scratched to earn a living in the midst of drought and farm crises in the South and Midwest in the years...
(The entire section is 691 words.)