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Yonnondio by Tillie Olsen
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Yonnondio (1974)

by Tillie Olsen

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I first heard of Tillie Olsen's name in a quote from Lydia Davis about Lucia Berlin. Then I happened on a collection of short stories which included her most famous short story "I Stand Here Ironing", where the comparison to Berlin is definitely warranted, from the topic to the style.

Yonnondio is Olsen's only novel, written in the 30s and published in 1974. As Willa Cather is to the pioneering spirit in the late 19th century (albeit with earthy optimism), Olsen with Yonnondio is to the realistic struggles of a working-class family in the Depression era.

She is unblinkingly realistic in her portrayals of the way that poverty affects her characters, the strain it puts on relationships, between spouses, between parents and children, the hopes of the parents for a better life for their children, the chances they must take for that minuscule chance at upward mobility, and the way classism is reinforced by other adults, other children, moulding them into the roles that society has prepared for them, most likely trapped in the generational cycle of poverty.

I'm not sure how to describe her prose (stream of consciousness?), other than the fact I loved it. It was poetical the way she so seamlessly blended the thoughts of each character (each with their own distinct voices as well) to the setting of the scene or the action of plot, dipping out of the and into the other.

Technically, the novel is unfinished, Olsen apparently only edited the manuscript drafts that she wrote in the 30s and did not add a single new word. However, my personal tastes consider the novel complete. I found the uneventful ending more affecting than a resolution in a three-act story could have been, the way it so matter-of-factly implies that things will just continue the way they have been going for the characters, with no sudden change of fortune, nor sudden windfall to alleviate their hardships, just small variations on the life that they're living already.

Sign me up for more Olsen please. Preferably all of them. ( )
  kitzyl | Sep 2, 2018 |
Heartbreaking and wonderfully written evocation of the pre-Depression years in the western US. ( )
  ffortsa | Dec 20, 2009 |
Alice Mattison said I had to read these. They're concise, precise, striking, disturbing, complete, and great models for how to write a short story, and how much a short story can cover. ( )
  sungene | Nov 16, 2007 |
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Author nameRoleType of authorWork?Status
Tillie Olsenprimary authorall editionscalculated
Kaplan, CoraIntroductionsecondary authorsome editionsconfirmed
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The whistles always woke Mazie. They pierced into her sleep like some gutteral-voiced metal beast, tearing at her; breathing a terror.
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Amazon.com Product Description (ISBN 080328621X, Paperback)

Yonnondio follows the heartbreaking path of the Holbrook family in the late 1920s and the Great Depression as they move from the coal mines of Wyoming to a tenant farm in western Nebraska, ending up finally on the kill floors of the slaughterhouses and in the wretched neighborhoods of the poor in Omaha, Nebraska.

Mazie, the oldest daughter in the growing family of Jim and Anna Holbrook, tells the story of the family's desire for a better life – Anna's dream that her children be educated and Jim's wish for a life lived out in the open, away from the darkness and danger of the mines. At every turn in their journey, however, their dreams are frustrated, and the family is jeopardized by cruel and indifferent systems.

(retrieved from Amazon Thu, 12 Mar 2015 18:03:26 -0400)

(see all 2 descriptions)

The story of the Holbrook family as they migrate from coal-mining town to farm to industrial city, struggling for a more tolerable existence. Their lives, made unforgettably real, reveal both the maiming power of circumstance and the sources of human endurance and hope.… (more)

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