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.”

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