Yonnondio Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

First published: 1974

Type of work: Novel

Type of plot: Realism

Time of work: The 1920’s

Locale: A Wyoming mining town, a South Dakota farm, and Omaha, Nebraska

Characters DiscussedAnna Holbrook

Anna YonnondioHolbrook, 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 lose their animals. They then take the train to Denver, their hometown, from which they have been away seven years. Here Jim hopes for a job in the slaughterhouses, but first he works in the sewers, eventually getting a fine forty-five-cent-an-hour position. To him, a job is God, and praying is not enough. Because of his difficult circumstances, he is at times harsh to his wife and children, yet basically he is a loving husband and father.

Mazie Holbrook

Mazie Holbrook, the oldest of five children, between six and a half and nine years old during the story. A thin, now rather homely child, not doing well in school and often with sadness in her heart, she is nevertheless effective at mothering the younger children, both at the beginning of the story and later, when her mother is not well. Later in the story, she is more independent, enjoying play and exploring the neighborhood. Partly because a crazed, drunken man almost kills Mazie, her father decides that the family will leave in the spring to be tenant farmers in South Dakota. There, Mazie shares the delights of clean, beautiful country life and begins school in the fall. Less happy in Denver, she eventually adjusts.

Will Holbrook

Will Holbrook, who is five years old at the opening of the story. Later, he is defiant to his mother and disrespectful to Mazie. Near the end of the book, he has, as does Mazie, a lust for sensation.

Alex Bedner

Alex Bedner and

Else Bedner

Else Bedner, old friends of the Holbrooks in Denver. Alex has attained the high-skill job of a tool and die maker and thereby a considerable rise in living standard. A piano in the living room and a stained-glass window are evidence of the Bedners’ status. Unfortunately, they have no children. The Bedners serve as foils to the prolific but impoverished Holbrooks.

BibliographyDawahare, Anthony. “ That Joyous Certainty’: History and Utopia in Tillie Olsen’s Depression-Era Literature.” Twentieth Century Literature 44 (Fall, 1998): 261. An analysis of Olsen’s literary works of the 1930’s. Explores how the labor movement and events such as the hunger marches, Bonus March, rent strikes, and other expressions of working-class rebellion influenced Olsen’s major work of the 1930’s, Yonnondio. Maintains that Olsen depicts the functioning of the working-class family as an index of the level of exploitation and the value of a society.Faulkner, Mara. Protest and Possibility in the Writing of Tillie Olsen. Charlottesville, University Press of Virginia, 1993. Focuses on four major themes in Olsen’s writings: motherhood, relationships between men and women, community, and language. Faulkner examines Yonnondio as well as many of Olsen’s lesser-known writings.Jameson, Elizabeth. “Written, They Reappear: Rereading Yonnondio.” Frontiers 18 (September-December, 1997): 141-145. Jameson’s personal evaluation of the novel. She discusses the book’s major themes, examines its class and gender relationships, and relates the lessons she learned from her initial reading and reexamination of Olsen’s novel. She sees the novel as encouraging women to seek new opportunities and to define their identity through the novel’s emphasis on family. Finally, the book underscores the importance of collective action and interdependence.Nelson, Kay H., and Nancy Huse, eds. The Critical Responses to Tillie Olsen. Westport, Conn.: Greenwood Press, 1994. Nelson and Huse’s volume presents a comprehensive view of Olsen’s life and works over the past sixty years and examines the social contexts of her writings. An illuminating review of Yonnondio: From the Thirties by Scott Turow, a chronology of Olsen’s life, and an extensive bibliography are especially helpful in understanding Olsen’s novel in relationship to her other works.Orr, Elaine N. “On the Side of Mother: Yonnondio and Call it Sleep.” Studies in American Fiction 21 (Autumn, 1993): 209-214. Compares Yonnondio (1936) with Henry Roth’s Call It Sleep (1934) by examining motherhood from the perspective of daughter and son. While Olsen portrays the daughter as physically and mentally close to the mother, Roth’s portrayal of the son emphasizes the son’s obsession with his mother. He otherwise lacks empathy; thus, the mother in Call It Sleep has no voice in the text.Orr, Elaine N. Tillie Olsen and a Feminist Spiritual Vision. Jackson: University Press of Mississippi, 1987. Orr examines the religious and feminist aspects of Olsen’s writing.Orr, Lisa. “ People Who Might Have Been You’: Agency and the Damaged Self in Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio.” Women’s Studies Quarterly 23 (Spring-Summer, 1995): 219-228. A discussion of Olsen’s exploration of the interdependence between the individual and society in Yonnondio. Points out that Olsen emphasizes that the self can change social structures and also explores the guilt that working-class people experience when they succeed and rise above their origins.Pearlman, Mickey, and Abby P. Werlock. Tillie Olsen. Boston: Twayne, 1991. An extremely useful scholarly book-length study of Olsen’s work. Contains analysis of Yonnondio, her short stories, and her nonfiction work. Contains detailed annotated notes as well as a comprehensive bibliography.Rosenfelt, Deborah. “From the Thirties: Tillie Olsen and the Radical Tradition.” Feminist Studies 7, no. 3 (Fall, 1981): 389-394. This rich source of historical information situates Olsen in the context of radical literature associated with the 1930’s Old Left. In this way, Olsen’s work becomes linked to that of Edna St. Vincent Millay, Katherine Anne Porter, Mary McCarthy, and Dorothy Parker.Stimpson, Catharine. Where the Meanings Are. New York: Methuen, 1988. In her sixth chapter, “Tillie Olsen: Witness as Servant (1977),” Stimpson explores the responsibilities of the writer as citizen as well as artist. She sees Olsen’s novel as bearing witness to the lives of those often belittled or denied by previous literature, and she praises Olsen’s ability to represent the interlocking oppressions of gender and class.Yalom, Marilyn, Ed. Women Writers of the West Coast: Speaking of Their Lives and Careers. Santa Barbara, Calif.: Capra Press, 1983. The essay on Olsen included here has its origins in a dialogue between Olsen and Yalom. These conversations yielded a discussion of the experience of marginality. Also discusses the effect that Olsen achieves when she reads her works aloud.
Categories: Characters