Yonnondio is a compelling, disturbingly real depiction of the lives of an impoverished American family during the early 1930’s. Written by Tillie Olsen, who also had survived such poverty growing up, the novel avoids didacticism yet still clearly conveys its message of the virtually endless injustices suffered by the poor under capitalism and the mechanization of work. These systems make “a few fat bellies fatter” while brutalizing workers, most compellingly miner Sheen McEvoy, whose face is blown off in a mine explosion that makes him so crazy he tries to sacrifice Mazie to the mine to stop the killing. The fire boss neglects to inspect the mines to avoid an explosion, and the mine owners disavow such a disaster as an “unavoidable catastrophe” (or, as in the Buffalo Creek mining disaster in West Virginia in the early 1970’s, in which fifty-five people died, as an “act of God”).
In the slaughterhouse business, the mechanistic system is described by Olsen as “choreographed by Beedo, the B system, speed-up, stopwatch, convey,” which dehumanizes the worker and makes him a “component part, geared, meshed, timed, controlled.” Dehumanized thus, Jim is brutal to his family, despite his love for them; “there is a need for someone to beat,” the same way Mazie also hits Will because of her frustrations lacking a place, a space, of her own.
Intertwined with Olsen’s anticapitalist theme is the contrast that she draws between country life and city life, or the natural versus the unnatural. Although farming in South Dakota is not heaven, still, its natural beauty and its fresh and clean breeze, coupled with the songs of the birds, all contribute to sustain the Holbrook family. Despite the abusive bankers who take their farm (the bankers a key element in the capitalistic system), farm life is presented as preferable to the stench, the mechanical dehumanization, the violence, and the deprivation of the inner city to which the Holbrooks move. Mazie survives mentally on her “full soft dream of the farm,” where she had been “secure,” and tries to avoid looking at the city streets and the city people. When she does really look at them for the first time, they “enter” her “like death.”
Anna, Mazie’s mother, only recovers from her mental illness after her miscarriage. She goes with her children to an empty section of the city along the river, a place that is “yellow and green and white with...
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