Yonnondio follows the heartbreaking path of the Holbrook family in the late 1920s and the Great Depression as they move from the coal mines of Wyoming to a tenant farm in western Nebraska ending up finally on the kill floors of the slaughterhouses and in the wretched neighborhoods of the poor in Omaha Nebraska Mazie the oldest daughter in the growing family of Jim and Anna Holbrook tells the story of the family's desire for a better life – Anna's dream that her children be educated and Jim's wish for a life lived out in the open away from the darkness and danger of the mines At every turn in their journey however their dreams are frustrated and the family is jeopardized by cruel and indifferent systems


10 thoughts on “Yonnondio From the Thirties

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    Tillie Lerner Olsen 1912 2007 was born in Wahoo Nebraska but grew up in Omaha Her parents were Russian Jewish immigrants who had been forced to flee from their country Over the years she worked at numerous odd jobs but was also a union organizer and political activist who advocated for the rights of women children racial minorities and the working poor On at least two occasions she was arrested and jailed as a result of her union activitiesAs a mother of four daughters and as a result of her activism her list of published works is a short one But what she did publish – essays short stories one novella and an unfinished novel – brought her notice particularly in the academic worldShe received nine honorary doctorates and grants from the Ford and Guggenheim foundations the National Endowment for the Arts and the National Endowment for the Humanities All of this even though she had dropped out of high school at age fifteenIn 1932 when she was nineteen she began a novel about a poverty stricken family attempting to survive first in the coal mining fields of Wyoming then a year of tenant farming in South Dakota before settling in Omaha where the father first worked in the sewers and later in a meatpacking plantBecause she gave birth to her first daughter at that time and continued her activism combined with the birth of three daughters she never finished the novel Years later her husband Jack Olsen found the manuscript of the incomplete novel and it was published as an unfinished novel in 1974 under the title Yonnondio From the ThirtiesOlsen’s original intent was to write a Depression era novel but she never got that far in the story before she set it aside Thus the subtitle causes some confusion because although the novel reads like a Great Depression story it is set entirely in the 20s The subtitle does not refer to the time of the story but the time in which Olsen had written the storyNo picture poem statement passing them to the futureYonnondio Yonnondio – unlimn’d they disappearTo day gives place and fades – the cities farms factories fadeA muffled sonorous sound a wailing word is borne through the air for a momentThen blank and gone and still and utterly lost from Walt Whitman’s Yonnondio Yonnondio is the story of the Holbrooks a poor working class family in the 1920s It is only during the year on the tenant farm in South Dakota that the family experienced a shred of happiness or any optimistic hope that their future was brighter than their past But even there it was a false hope They had been warned by a neighbor when they first moved onto the farm“I tell you you can’t make a go of it Tenant farming is the only thing worse than farmin your own That way you at least got a chance a good year but tenant farmin bad or good year the bank swallows everything up and keeps you owin ‘em You’ll see” Unfortunately he was rightComing to the kitchen she heard her father’s angry voice “They’re taking all of it every damn thing The whole year slaved to nothing I owe them – some joke if it wasnt so bloody – I owin them after working like a team of mules for a year They’re wantin the cow and NellieThe bastards A whole year – now I’m owin them”It is a story of unrelenting poverty but than that it is also a story about what poverty does to families Underlying the story is a subtext in which an economic system that gives them no control over their fate creates a sense of helpless pessimism that causes them to vent their frustrations on each other And this was in the 20s a decade of relative prosperity but one that was not shared by all But it does make one wonder what she might have had to say about the economic system in the 30s if the novel had been completedThe story ends abruptly with a graphic description of the horrible working conditions in the meatpacking plant one that is remindful of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle and is written in a style that brings John Dos Passos to mind Tillie Olsen wrote in an afterword“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“These pages you have read are all that is deemed publishable of it Only fragments rough drafts outlines scraps remain – telling what might have been”