'Riddle' deals with universal issues


Published: Sunday, September 1, 2002 at 6:01 a.m.
Last Modified: Saturday, August 31, 2002 at 10:49 p.m.
I can't remember where or when I first learned about Tillie Olsen's extraordinary collection of fiction "Tell Me A Riddle." But I am a big fan of Robert Coles, the psychiatrist who has taught at Harvard and written a slew of books exploring the effect of our culture on young people. And Robert Coles has written a good deal about "Tell Me a Riddle" in his book, "The Call of Stories."
Andrew Greeley of The Chicago Tribune has called Robert Coles "a social scientist, humanist, political activist, psychiatrist, minstrel, wandering storyteller, mystic, wise man, poet, dissenter, and yes, even a secular saint."
At any rate, I consider him to be a big fish with many wise words, and in the early l960s he wrote about the effect of "Tell Me a Riddle" on high school students in Atlanta who were dealing with the issues of school integration. He noted, "The racial tension in the schools caused many students, white as well as black, to feel not only perplexed or fearful but lonely."
He found that their reaction to the first story in the collection, "I Stand Here Ironing" stirred much emotion and "at a time when there was no formal women's liberation movement and when Olsen herself was hardly known."
As you read it, you will see that this is the story of a woman responding to a request from her daughter's school, saying, "I wish you would manage the time to come in and talk with me about your daughter. I'm sure you can help me understand her. She's a youngster who needs help and whom I'm deeply interested in helping."
The rest of the story is this mother's thoughts as she tries to explain, and understand herself, the whole of the nineteen years of her daughter's life.
This is heavy stuff, real stuff, eternal stuff. And no one had written about a mother's challenges more truthfully, or intensely, before Tillie Olsen.
Robert Coles found that the story "prompts young readers to look at their own past - to take stock of the troubles they have had, and the opportunities, too, and to reflect on how they have managed in the less than two decades of their lives." He also found that black students identified with the characters in such a way that one high schooler stated, "never before had he so identified with people in a white family."
I think one reason this can happen is that Tillie Olsen uses the narrative technique of stream of consciousness, which was developed at the end of the l9th century and is based on the concept that ideas and consciousness are forever shifting and are never fixed. Through this technique - at least, from my viewpoint as a writer - the author totally disappears. Nothing now stands between the thoughts of the main character and the reader.
Jean Gilman, in Ocala, says, "I've never been a fan of stream of consciousness. I think it has something to do with the fact that I'm a Yankee, and we like direct talk and candor, and also with the fact that I'm somewhat of a lazy reader."
Jean, however, says about "I Stand Here Ironing," "Wow - 50 years after it was written and women are still concerned with the same issues - breast feeding and daycare and its effect on children."
Jean is a member of an Ocala book club that calls itself the Horsefeathers, which is also the name of the farm where they meet. This is a group of a baker's dozen of women who share not only a love of reading good books but also a love of animals, doing crafts and cooking.
In fact, they are putting out their own cookbook in the near future, because every book club meeting they hold is also a buffet dinner made up of dishes they want to try out on each other. The Horsefeathers Book Club will be reading our current selection, and, who knows, they might even throw in a recipe or two.
What feelings and issues does "Tell Me a Riddle" stir up in you? Find a young novel buddy and dig into "So You Want to be a Wizard." I can promise you, none of this is bland fare.
Read. Write me. Join our novel conversation.

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