Encyclopedia of the Great Plains

David J. Wishart, Editor

OLSEN, TILLIE (b. 1913)

Tillie Olsen, author of Tell Me a Riddle, was born Tillie Lerner on a farm near Mead, Nebraska, on January 14, 1913. Like many other Jewish immigrants in Nebraska, the Lerners had left Russia after the failure of the 1905 revolution. The family moved to Omaha in 1917. Olsen's parents were active Socialists, and her father, Samuel, ran for lieutenant governor on the Socialist Party ticket in 1928. Her early life was centered in the family's struggle to make a living and its radical politics. At Central High, Olsen read widely and wrote for the school paper but was not a model student. She dropped out of high school after joining the Young Communist League in 1931. By 1934 she had moved to San Francisco, where she married Jack Olsen and reared four daughters.

Olsen's first story, "The Iron Throat," appeared in 1934 in the Partisan Review. The story attracted attention, and Olsen participated in the 1935 Writers Congress. In the 1940s Olsen was active in union and other left-wing activities. In 1961, after her mother's death, Olsen published Tell Me a Riddle, a collection of short fiction. The title story, based on her parents' lives, focuses on a mother's memories and the family's responses to her impending death from cancer. Another story is "I Stand Here Ironing." Both stories portray creative women whose lives were subdued by the exigencies of motherhood. These stories received wide critical acclaim and resonated with the emerging feminist ideas of the 1970s. In 1974 Olsen published Yonnondio, a novel of the Great Depression she began in the early 1930s. Yonnondio also draws on her family history and midwestern roots. The novel focuses on Mazie, a starry-eyed young girl, who moves with her family from the farm to a large meatpacking city like Omaha. In 1978 Olsen published Silences, a book of nonfiction essays about pressures that silence women as writers.

Olsen's fiction won national and international notice in the 1970s. She is generally considered a major figure among contemporary women writers.

Linda Ray Pratt University of Nebraska-Lincoln

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