Retro Review Influence of 1950s permeates Olson’s short, but powerful collection

Retro Review Influence of 1950s permeates Olson’s short, but powerful collection

While the name Tillie Olsen may not be as familiar today as other Jewish authors from the 1950s, she nevertheless has made an indelible mark on the Jewish literary scene with her renowned short story collection, “Tell Me a Riddle,” published in 1960.

The volume may be slim, but the four stories contained within are quietly powerful.

The title story in particular tells of an aging, immigrant Jewish couple that bickers incessantly.  He loves activity; she loves solitude. He wants to move to a retirement home; she refuses.

“For forty-seven years they had been married.  How deep back the stubborn, gnarled roots of the quarrel reached, no one could say — but only now, when tending to the needs of others no longer shackled them together, the roots swelled up visible, split the earth between them, and the tearing shook even to the children, long since grown.”

However, when he learns that she is dying, with about a year left to live, he takes her on an odyssey, visiting their children and grandchildren for the last time. The story is moving, insightful and perceptive.

In another story, “I Stand Here Ironing,” a mother is having a conversation with an official from her daughter Emily’s school that has called to offer “help” for the 19-year-old.  The one-way narration is told from the mother’s perspective.  As she speaks, the family’s story is revealed:  the father who abandoned the family, the difficulties she has had in raising her child, etc.

“Let her be.  So all that is in her will not bloom — but in how many does it?  There is still enough left to live by.  Only help her to know — help make it so there is cause for her to know — that she is more than this dress on the ironing board, helpless before the iron.”

Two other stories, “Hey Sailor, What Ship?” and “O Yes” did not resonate for me as much as the other two, though the entire collection is worth reading.  

There is so much to think about with each page, so many insightful lines, that you may find yourself taking longer than is usual to read a book that is barely more than 100 pages.

The post-war years of the 1950s, with its social changes, including the beginning of the civil rights movement, undoubtedly influenced Olsen’s work. Themes of economics, stereotypes, the role of women in society, motherhood, religion and conformity are scattered throughout these stories.  

In 1912, Tillie Olsen was born Tillie Lerner, the daughter of Jewish Russian immigrants, and was raised in Nebraska.  Her socialist parents had opposed the czar, and perhaps as a result, Olsen became immersed in politics.  She is considered by many to be an early American feminist. After a series of menial jobs, she became an activist in human rights and other political causes during the Depression era, eventually joining the Young Communist League.  Olsen, who had a tumultuous life, was jailed several times for these activities.

Olsen did not begin writing until mid-life; she received the O’Henry Prize for the novella, “Tell Me a Riddle.” Although she did not graduate from high school, she taught writing at MIT and Stanford University in the 1970s. Other than essays and news articles, Olsen published only a few books, but her literary reach was far and wide. A  1980 film of the same name was produced and was based on the title story.

Olsen died in 2007 at the age of 95.

Hilary Daninhirsch can be reached at

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