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Tillie Lerner Olsen Portrait

Born in Nebraska of Russian parents who participated in the 1905 Revolution and fled when it failed, Tillie Lerner had to leave school to work after the eleventh grade. She trimmed meat in a packinghouse, worked as a waitress and a domestic, and meanwhile joined the Young Communist League. Her father had become state secretary of the Nebraska Socialist Party. Lerner herself went to jail for trying to organize packinghouse workers. Meanwhile, she began to write, starting the novel that would become Yonnondio years later when she was only nineteen. She moved to California in the early 1930s, publishing "I Want You Women Up North to Know" in the West coast John Reed Club magazine Partisan in 1934. She was harassed repeatedly by the FBI during the McCarthy period. Her story "Tell Me a Riddle" is her most famous work.