Yonnondio: From the Thirties Characters

  • Last updated on December 10, 2021

Author: Tillie Olsen

First published: 1974

Genre: Novel

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

Plot: Realism

Time: The 1920's

Anna Holbrook, 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, 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, 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, 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 and 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.

Categories: Characters