Tillie Olsen's Yonnondio Essay

932 words - 4 pages

Tillie Olsen's Yonnondio

In contrast to many other Depression-era novels, in which the teamwork of the common man is seen as society's glue, Tillie Olsen's Yonnondio looks with great admiration at one family's struggle to keep above water. Through the travails of a coal-mining/farming family, Anna Holbrook becomes the one constant in a society that turns man against himself, and where fortune is evanescent.


The thirst for something stable is evident as the children show their awe of the physical world. As an adult explains the stars to Mazie, Olsen writes: "As his words misted into the night and disappeared, she scarcely listened‹only the aura over them of timelessness, of vastness, of eternal things that had been before her and would be after her, remained and entered into her with a great hurt and wanting." (33) The present, the words describing the stars, hold no intrigue for Mazie; the idea of a permanence stronger than the Depression does. Two pages later, Olsen writes of Mazie stripping corn silk: "Šshe would dream of weaving it into garments incredible. But the tassells withered, grew brown and smelly, and she had to throw them away." (35) Her actual life results only in death, and she must again call up something enduring, "a poem learned from Old Man Caldwell." (35)


Olsen views the Holbrook's struggle as heroic. Says Caldwell, "'Mazie. Live, don't existŠBetter to be a cripple and alive than dead, not able to feel anything. No, there is more‹to rebel against what will not let life be.'" (37) It is this very nobility that allows the Holbrook family to survive past expectations. Life is filled with hurdles, most coming from other people. After learning about different nationalities in school, Mazie tells two girls about life on a farm. Another boy overhears them and snidely remarks, "'So you come from the country where our milk comes from; ya learn about bulls?' and smack, head butted her in the stomach." (50) His use of the word Œcountry' has an ambiguous effect; it could either mean the countryside or an actual country. With his comment, Olsen shows how the two worlds, country and city, are fundamentally separated. This is further emphasized when the teacher scolds Mazie: "'Perhaps you indulged in rough play of this nature where you come from, but we do not permit it here, nor does it go unpunished.'" (50-1)


The lack of cooperation between men is shown as Jim's young, single work partner quits in protest of unfair conditions. Jim is keeps his fury silent: "Alright for him to...

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