“Girlitude” Week: Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio

Yonnondio olsen 51QIefHk7XL._SX336_BO1,204,203,200_

It’s Girlitude Week!  It’s my women’s lit binge–last time I called it Gal Up! Week– and I am off to a good start with TILLIE OLSEN’S YONNONDIO:  FROM THE THIRTIES. 

Olsen (1912-2007) was an American feminist writer, best known for her award-winning short story,”Tell Me a Riddle.” She was a powerful presence at a reading, and those of us who attended were mesmerized by her charm and eccentricity.  She wrote only three books, Tell Me a Riddle,  a brilliant collection of four short stories (“I Stand Here Ironing” is widely-anthologized); Silences, a study of why writers (often working-class, women, or people of color) fall silent; and Yonnondio, an unfinished novel.

I procrastinated reading Yonnondio (written in the ’30s, published in 1974), since I am not a fan of unfinished lit. But lo and behold!  it s is Olsen’s best work, a tour de force, the powerful story of a working-class family trying to survive during the Depression. Her lyrical style combines stream-of-consciousness and naturalism:  it is like Dreiser and Harriette Arnow high on Faulkner and Walt Whitman.

Olsen, a union activist who worked for low wages as a maid, packinghouse worker, and factory worker while raising four daughters, lived for many years in poverty.  In this harrowing portrait of the Holbrook family trying to get by on starvation wages, they fall lower and lower down the ladder of the American class system.  The Fourth of July means nothing to weary Anna Holbrook, who is annoyed when her husband spends money on fireworks:  the celebration of freedom has nothing to do her family.  Jim works like a slave in a coal mine, then as a tenant farmer, and then in the slaughterhouse.

In the beginning, when he is a coal miner in Wyoming, it is a stark life.  How could it get starker? we wonder.  The miners are brutal and often drunk, while the woman  try to protect the children and help them get an education.  There are shades of D. H. Lawrence’s Sons and Lovers in Yonnandio, though Lawrence’s Morel family is more refined than the Holbrooks.

yonnondio bison books 51xLzDkJdnL._SX311_BO1,204,203,200_Olsen sketches the family with a harrowing simplicity.

For several weeks Jim Holbrook had been in an evil mood.  The whole household walked in terror.  He had nothing but heavy blows for the children, and he struck Anna too often to remember.  Every payday he clumped home, washed, went to town, and returned hours later, dead drunk.  Once Anna had questioned him timidly concerning his work; he struck her on the mouth with a bellow of “Shut your damn trap.”

But Anna doesn’t stand up to the situation as well as Lawrence’s better-educated Mrs. Morel.

Anna too became bitter and brutal.  If one of the children was n her way, if they did not obey her instantly , she would hit at them in a blind rage, as if it were some devil she was exorcising.  Afterwards, in the midst of her work, regret would cramp her heart at the memory of the tear-stained little faces.  “‘Twasn’t them I was beatin up on.  Somethin just seems to get into me when I have something to hit.”

And the mines are dangerous:  there are explosions, and Jim is lucky to survive.  And after a schizophrenic man tries to throw their daughter Maizie down a mine because he thinks it is hungry, Jim decides to move.

tillie olsen virago 21140689They live on a tenant farm in South Dakota, where they grow their own food and at first are very happy. The children thrive on the land and finally have a chance to go to school. This is Anna’s dream for them:  she wants them to go to college.  Mazie, the oldest child, is especially quick, imaginative, and  creative.  She invents stories about nature for her brother (myths about the wind, leaves, and stars).  But Anna is constantly pregnant and sick, having and losing babies.  Maizie is traumatized when her father leaves her alone on the farm with her mother in labor, and her mother is furious that he takes the other children and leaves the little girl.  As soon as Jim comes back with a woman from the farm,  Maizie runs and hides and covers her ears.  She doesn’t quite understand what is happening, but she knows it is terrible.

The bank owns the farm but the bank and takes all the money, so they move to Omaha, where Jim slaves in a slaughterhouse.  VIolence, brutality, and the stink of dying cattle and the meat processing dominate their lives and make them sick.

What a stunning book!  And what a shame that we lost all those years of Olsen’s work.  But who can write when she must work round the clock at a job and raising children?  In the early ’70s Olsen found four complete chapters of the book and some fragments.  She says she began it in 1932 in Fairbault, Minnesota, and worked on it until 1937, as she moved around the country.  She cobbled it together and polished it.

She writes,

Judgment had to be exercised as to which version, revision or draft to choose or combine; decision made whether to include or omit certain first drafts and notes; and guessing as to where several scenes belonged.  In this sense–the choices and omissions, the combinings and reconstruction–the book ceased to be solely the work of that long ago young writer and, in arduous partnership, became this older one’s as well.

I loved it, and it’s one of the best books I’ve read this year.  It is available from  Bison Books, an imprint of University of Nebraska Press.

4 thoughts on ““Girlitude” Week: Tillie Olsen’s Yonnondio

  1. High praise indeed, Kat. I’ve never read Olsen but I’ll certainly keep an eye out for the Virago for my collection! 🙂


  2. My topic for my coming paper and the woman who wrote the book I edited (Ethelinde, 1790) may seem so far from Olsen: 18th century originally gentry. But her life was similarly driven and hard. She did manage to write a number of books and a book of great poetry. We should be grateful to Olsen for letting us know about so many people who don’t manage to get a place to voice for us what they are going through. I love how you re-tell these books with feeling, conveying the central gist — it’s like having these books added day-by-day to our lives.

    I have read her “I’m standing here ironing” and a couple of critical short essays by her.


    • I love “I’m Standing Here Ironing,” but Yonnondio is more emotional, more lyrical, written before life had pared everything down. And so that’s both good and bad. Olsen did write great working-class fiction.


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