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 natio...
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... emotional resource for the split family. The last passage reveals Mazie's mixture of compassion and strength necessary for survival in the dusty, cold world: "Her hand on the arm around him was open and tender, but the other lay fisted and terrible like her father's that night in the kitchen. Till the dayŠ" (152) Olsen has faith in the family; they have waded through hardship after hardship, encountered abandonment and death, and still they will wake the next day. Survival here is not accomplished by reliance upon others, but on one's own reserve of will. This is a stark departure from Steinbeck's and others' views on the Depression; nonetheless, both schools of thought hold tremendous sympathy for the lives full of misery about which they wrote.
Olsen, Tillie. Yonnondio: From the Thirties, Delacorte, 1974, reprinted, Dell, 1989.
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