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By Phil Hall | September 11, 2008

Ann Hershey’s documentary on the life and career of short story writer and feminist literature historian Tillie Olsen (1914-2007) provides an invigorating biography set against periods of dramatic social upheaval.

The daughter of Russian socialists who emigrated to Nebraska, Olsen dropped out of high school in her senior year and became involved in Communist Youth League activities. Drifting to San Francisco in the early 1930s, she was marginally involved in the 1934 strike that paralyzed the city and led violent civil unrest. In the post-World War II years, her husband, a teacher with pronounced Communist leanings, could not get work in the educational field and had to find lower-paying work as a printer; Olsen had to work as a secretary to help support their three daughters.

Yet Olsen’s literary talent, which combined uncommonly sensitive observations of maternal experiences with sharp condemnations of casual racism and sexism, slowly found an audience by the early 1960s and was credited as being among the sparks that lit the modern feminist movement. No less a figure than Gloria Steinem was among Olsen’s ardent admirers, and Olsen’s work in recovering long-forgotten works of 19th century female writers has been cited as an important contribution to preserving American cultural history; her most significant rediscovery was “Life in the Iron Mills” by Rebecca Harding Davis.

The film, which was mostly shot in the early part of this decade (prior to Olsen’s succumbing to Alzheimer’s Disease), finds the writer at numerous readings, where she puts her spoken voice to the often–haunting passages of such classic short stories as “Tell Me a Riddle” and “I Stand Here Ironing.” Olsen also speaks at length with a frankness and humor on her life – a crowning achievement, she recalls, is having a race horse named after her.

Many viewers might not be familiar with Olsen’s work, and this film is a wonderful vehicle for encouraging a new generation to seek out her writing.

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