Tillie Olsen by John Leonard

Tillie Olsen by John Leonard

Looking back, it’s easy to deconstruct Tell Me a Riddle as a nest of prophetic texts on race war, class animus and feminism. From a sensibility formed in the Great Depression, in stories published in ’50s magazines you’ve never heard of, Olsen reported to the sassy ’60s on where we had been before America, and on those our steerage left behind; what blue-collar work was really like on the night shift or at sea; who lost out in claustrophobic marriages, and how it felt to be broke, trapped, female and speechless; on unions, radical politics, the immigrant experience, children lost and children sold, winter rage. To his grandmother Eva, who is dying of cancer, Richard explains the rocks. There are three kinds, he tells her: “earth’s fire jetting; rock of layered centuries; crucibled new out of the old (igneous, sedimentary, metamorphic). But there was that other–frozen to black glass, never to transform or hold the fossil memory.” And Eva, who was a revolutionary in Russia before she was a mother in America, who “can no longer live between people” because she was “nuzzled away” and “devoured” by seven “lovely mouths…drowning into needing and being needed,” sees herself as black glass. Which is why, out of Tolstoy, Chekhov and Victor Hugo, the native Samoan dance of a young Marine and a child’s cookie cut from some Mexican Bread of the Dead, the Book of Martyrs and a girlhood memory, she will sing herself to death.

But see how it’s done: First what Cynthia Ozick calls “a certain corona of moral purpose.” And then the prose that lashes like a whip, that cracks and stings. And then the judgment coming down like a terrible swift sword. And then a forgiving grace note, like haiku or Pascal. Memory, history, poetry and prophecy converge. Reading her again, and again, and again, I find that when you love a book, it loves you back.

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