Tell Me a Riddle

A novel by Tillie Olsen

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Reprinted with permission from American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (Jewish Publication Society).

Reading is a luxury. A luxury of immense value, yes-and one that some of us feel to be necessary to get through the day-but nonetheless there are times when carving out a free hour from our other responsibilities to enjoy a book is impossible.

Tell Me a Riddle by Tillie OlsenOne of Tillie Olsen's characters remembers herself as a "young wife, who in the deep night hours while she nursed the current baby, and perhaps held another in her lap, would try to stay awake for the only time there was to read"--only to be interrupted, inevitably, by her husband, coming in late from a meeting and demanding her attention. If reading is difficult in such situations, just imagine how impossible writing would be.

That is, more or less, the story of Olsen's life. A gifted writer from a young age, she published stories and essays and then began work on a novel in the early 1930s, but soon she found herself busy with motherhood, and with communist and pro-union causes for which she was twice jailed.

She didn't publish her first book, Tell Me a Riddle, a collection of short stories, until she was 49, and it is mostly upon this slim volume that her reputation rests; as Margaret Atwood remarked in a review, "Few writers have gained such wide respect on such a small body of published work."

The stories themselves, which should not be overshadowed by Olsen's biography, focus with remarkable sympathy on a group of troubled souls. Emily, the 19-year-old daughter described by her mother in "I Stand Here Ironing" has never fit in, being "thin and dark and foreign-looking"; she is, unfortunately, "a child of her age, of depression, of war, of fear." In "0 Yes," the shock of an African American church service on a young Jewish girl becomes a symbol for the sad and seemingly inevitable fade-out of her friendship with her African American neighbor when they reach junior high, where they are subject to social "sorting" into "different places, different crowds."

The title story, a novella about the last years in the life of a spirited but bitter grandmother, won the O. Henry Award for the best story of 1961; a moving and spirited portrait of life from the perspective of old age, it is told-like the other pieces-in brief snippets of dialogue, flashbacks, remembered conversations, and held grudges.

With their children grown, the woman and her husband bicker about innumerable inconsequential things and about whether they should move to a retirement community; soon she is diagnosed with cancer. She gets annoyed when her daughter asks her to light Friday night candles, and, at the hospital, when a rabbi comes to her bedside; "Superstition!" she complains, rejecting a "religion that stifled and said: in Paradise, woman, you will be the footstool of your husband." Her ideology, rooted in European socialism--she was exiled to Siberia in her youth--is "to smash all ghettos that divide us," yet, chatting unhappily with successful old friends, she feels shame over her children's intermarriages. A beautifully realized set of character studies, Tell Me a Riddle is a heart-rending classic.

Further reading: Silences (1978) is Olsen's nonfiction volume exploring the reasons people--especially women and the poor--aren't able to write; she also published Yonnondio (1974), the unfinished novel she had begun drafting decades earlier. A couple of critical volumes on Olsen's work appeared in the 1990s, including one edited by Joanne S. Frye (1995).

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Josh Lambert

Josh Lambert is Dorot Assistant Professor/Faculty Fellow in the Department of Hebrew and Judaic Studies at New York University and the author of American Jewish Fiction: A JPS Guide (2009).