‘All that happens, one must try to understand’

The Kindredness of Tillie Olsen’s Tell Me a Riddle and Margaret Laurence’s The Stone Angel
  • Michael A. Peterman


Speaking at Trent University on the subject of ‘Books that Mattered to Me’, Margaret Laurence gave special praise to a novella and a writer few in that Canadian audience of 1980 recognised. ‘Tillie Olsen,’ she reported,

is an American writer with whom I feel a deep sense of empathy, tribal kinship, sisterhood. Her book, Tell Me a Riddle, consists of a novella and three short stories. She has written relatively little because of her personal circumstances. She married young, had four children and for many years had to work at a job outside her home. Her book, Silences, explores the circumstances that have prevented some writers, both female and male, from fulfilling their life’s work. The novella, Tell Me a Riddle, seems to me to be as close to perfection as any contemporary prose I have read. In just fifty printed pages — fifty! — Olsen communicates the story of a long marriage, an entire family, ancestral roots reaching back into a long ago past in other countries, the ways in which humans suffer and hurt one another and yet support and love one another. In my view, it is a small masterpiece.1


Deep Sense Woman Writer American Writer Ancestral Root York Time Book Review 
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  1. 1.
    Margaret Laurence, ‘Books that Mattered to Me’, in F. A. Hagar (ed.), Friends of the Bata Library (Peterborough, Ontario: Trent University, 1981) n.p. Laurence also discusses the impact upon her of Arthur Conan Doyle, Rudyard Kipling, Robert Louis Stevenson, Nellie McClung, L. M. Montgomery, Sinclair Ross, W. O. Mitchell, Adele Wiseman, the French psychologist O. Mannoni, Canadian historian W. L. Morton, Frank Scott, Joyce Cary, Kurt Vonnegut, Gabrielle Roy, Rudy Wiebe, Robertson Davies and Timothy Findley.Google Scholar
  2. 3.
    ‘Tell Me a Riddle’ first appeared in Stewart Richardson and Corlies M. Smith (eds), New World Writing 16 (Philadelphia: Lippincott, 1960) pp. 11–57. It won the O. Henry Award as Best Story of the Year and was included in the collection of four pieces under the title Tell Me a Riddle, published by J. B. Lippincott in New York in 1961. Laurence later met Tillie Olsen in Toronto and is mentioned along with several other Canadian writers in a footnote in Olsen’s Silences (New York: Laurel, 1978).Google Scholar
  3. 4.
    Margaret Laurence, The Stone Angel (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart, 1968) p. 254. Further quotations from The Stone Angel will be designated S in the essay.Google Scholar
  4. 5.
    Tillie Olsen, Tell Me a Riddle (New York: Dell, 1976) p. 72. Further quotations from the novella will be designated T in the essay.Google Scholar
  5. 6.
    Jacqueline A. Mintz, The Myth of the Jewish Mother in Three Jewish, American, Female Writers’, Centennial Review, vol. 22 (1978) pp. 346–50.Google Scholar
  6. 7.
    Olsen’s father was State Secretary of the Nebraska Socialist Party. She became a member of the Young Communist League and participated in various labour disputes during the 1930s and 1940s. Her earliest writing appeared in the New Republic and the Partisan Review in 1934. See Abigail Martin, Tillie Olsen (Boise, Idaho: Boise State University Western Writers Series, no. 65, 1984).Google Scholar
  7. 8.
    Margaret Laurence, ‘Ivory Tower or Grass Roots?: the Novelist as Socio-political Being’, in A Political Art: Essays and Images in Honour of George Woodcock, William H. New (ed.) (Vancouver, B.C.: University of British Columbia Press, 1978) p. 24.Google Scholar
  8. 11.
    Clara Thomas, ‘Myth and Manitoba in The Diviners’, journal of Canadian Studies, vol. 13 (Autumn 1978) p. 63.Google Scholar
  9. 13.
    Margaret Atwood, ‘Obstacle Course’, New York Times Book Review, 30 July 1978, p. 1.Google Scholar
  10. 14.
    Blanche Gelfant, Women Writing in America (Hanover and London: University Press of New England, 1984) p. 60. In the preface to her Olsen essay, Gelfant remarks upon the belated feeling of kinship Olsen felt for Willa Cather’s work. ‘I began to sense then, dimly perhaps, what has now become dear: that women writers have common roots, not necessarily geographic, as in this instance; that they inspire and give strength to each other; that when one finds or recovers her voice, she enables many others to speak.’ This essay echoes that perception.Google Scholar

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© Michael A. Peterman 1990

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  • Michael A. Peterman

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