The Characters

(Masterpieces of American Fiction)

The novel’s three main characters are Jim, Anna, and Mazie; the other Holbrook children play a secondary role, and various neighbors and co-workers form a third level of characterization. The central character is probably Mazie, for much of the action of the novel is filtered through her consciousness and she is clearly the persona of the adult author. The thematic center of the book, however, is Anna Holbrook, the courageous, suffering mother who is trying to wrestle dignity out of her family’s struggle to survive in this world, and the main protagonist is Jim, whose search for work propels the action of the novel but whose weaknesses also contribute to its tragedy. (It is Jim’s demands for sexual relations with his pregnant wife that lead to the final miscarriage.) Jim is not a bad man; like the rest of the Holbrook family and like their neighbors in various Western homes, he is merely a victim of the crushing socioeconomic circumstances that existed in pre-Depression America.

Mazie’s mind is poetic, and it permeates the novel. She is a sensitive child (often with thoughts too adult for her own good), and her voice lifts the novel above the sordid level of its drama. Similarly, the actions of Anna to hold this family together in spite of inordinate difficulties raise this domestic tragedy above the level of much fiction of the 1930’s. At the end of the novel, and in spite of her weakened condition, Anna is taking in laundry to earn money for her children’s education, and she and the children wander the outskirts of Omaha in search of the spring dandelions she can use as greens on her meager supper table. She is a valiant, remarkable woman who reminds the reader of the protagonist of Harriette Arnow’s The Dollmaker (1954) and of a number of women in contemporary feminist fiction.

Characters Discussed

(Great Characters in Literature)

Anna Holbrook

Anna Holbrook, who is married to Jim and is the mother of Mazie, Will, Ben, the baby Jim, and baby Bess, born later in the story. Early in her life, Anna is as strong as a bull, with black eyes and black hair. After a move to a Dakota farm, she gives birth in March to Bess and develops health problems, culminating in a severe miscarriage when Bess is four months old, after they have moved back to town in Colorado. She eventually feels better and is again in command of her children and her life. She tries to achieve a better life for her children, wanting them to secure an education and getting a library card for them. When she learns of the importance of hygiene and good diet, she attempts to provide these. She and the family enjoy good times in the country summer and out walking in Denver. At the end of the book, after a heat wave with the temperature in the hundreds for days, she notices that the “air’s changen” and sees that tomorrow it will become tolerable. The title is taken from the poem “Yonnondio” by Walt Whitman, which refers to those, like Anna, of whom eventually nothing remains, no picture or poem.

Jim Holbrook

Jim Holbrook, Anna’s blue-eyed husband and the father of the five children. He works in the dangerous coal mines in Wyoming. The hard life leads him to drink occasionally, but finally he takes his family to a Dakota farm. After a year of hard work, they get nothing and...

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