From February ’07 Spotlight: When writer Tillie Olsen died on January 1st, she was 94 years old. While by no means as famous as Miller, Olsen had a huge following, and her best-known story Tell Me a Riddle is an acknowledged feminist classic. Like Solomon, Olsen’s most famous character, “Eva,” was born in Russia. Her voyage to America began after a year in Siberia (where she was imprisoned in 1905 for revolutionary activities). But unlike Solomon, Eva’s life in America has mostly been a silent one filled with domestic drudgery. The grand speeches she made in her youth play mostly in her head now, to an audience of ghosts.
The film version of Tell Me a Riddle was released in 1980 and VHS copies are available online and in numerous local libraries. (Maybe now, with Olsen’s death, it will be released on DVD.) Directed by Oscar-winning actress Lee Grant (born Lyova Haskell Rosenthal), Riddle has a strong ensemble cast lead by Lila Kedrova (as Eva) and Melvyn Douglas (as her husband David), but as often happens with Hollywood adaptations, much of the story’s overt Jewish content is gone. Grant stresses the Russian elements of Eva’s background; Yiddish makes only one cameo appearance (when a group of seniors sing “Rozhinkes mit Mandlen”).
Nevertheless, what remains is still a powerful evocation of the immigrant experience, summarized here by Eva’s more outgoing husband: “[We] escaped to the grandchildren whose childhoods were childish, who had never hungered, who lived unravaged by disease in warm houses of many rooms, had all the school for which they cared, could walk on any street, stood a head taller than their grandparents, towered above – beautiful skins, straight backs, clear straightforward eyes. ‘Yes, you in Olshana,’ David said to the town of sixty years ago, ‘they would seem nobility to you.’”