One of the most powerful and iconic photographs to come out of the Great Depression in America is “Migrant Mother,” taken in 1936 by photographer Dorothea Lange. From this photograph, Marisa Silver has constructed a wise and poignant novel that is anchored by three different characters: Mary Coin, based on Florence Owens Thompson, the migrant mother; Vera Dare, inspired by Lange; and Walker Dodge, a current-day professor of cultural history whose own personal history is embedded in the photograph.
The novel opens with Walker watching his elderly father, George, dying. With his passing also comes the death of the Dodge family homestead and citrus farm that has been in the family for over 100 years. While driving home to see his father, Walker describes the town of Porter, now in decline, and thinks: “It is surrounded by the fields of California's Central Valley, which are as old as Walker's family who have worked them for a hundred and thirty years, as old as the Yokut tribes who roamed them before that, paying spiritual tribute to a land that sustained them. Which is all Walker's ancestors ever wanted from this place to begin with: the assurance of a future.”
"MARY COIN is a well-written, powerfully quiet, and haunting novel. Marisa Silver lovingly and painstakingly brings to life those who were behind the photograph of a woman whose expression of desperation and pain etched on her face still speaks to us almost a century later."
We are introduced to Mary Coin in 1920 in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, where she is a teenage girl who lives with her siblings and mother Doris and falls in love with Toby Coin. By the time they marry in 1921, Mary is pregnant with their first child. On her wedding day, in the course of a conversation with her mother about her wedding dress, which has been handed down to her from a cousin, “a big girl with man-sized shoulders,” Mary asks her, “What am I supposed to be?” Her mother responds: “You’ll know who you are when you start losing things.” It is this sentence that will inform most of the novel, as each of the three characters --- Mary, Vera and Walker --- are ultimately defined by their losses.
With economic catastrophe looming throughout the country, Mary will become an itinerant mother who moves from farm to farm to keep herself and her family alive, eventually losing her husband and one of her seven children. Later on in the novel, when she is an old woman in a doctor’s office looking back at her life, Mary remembers: “Doris also said that Mary would not know who she was until she lost the things in her life. Mary thought it was not something a girl should have to hear on her wedding day. And now, sitting in this examining room, she knew her mother had been wrong. The hard bargain was that you lost and you lost and still you didn’t know.”
Vera Dare is a young photographer in San Francisco who makes her living as a society portraitist. Hobbled by childhood polio, Vera ends up marrying a painter named Everett, 20 years her senior with whom she has two sons. Everett disappears for several months out of the year to go on painting trips while Vera is the main breadwinner and caretaker of the children. She eventually realizes that Everett is having affairs all over town. The Great Depression inches closer and Everett has not sold a painting in over a year. Vera must leave her sons with a woman in Oakland who has opened her home to children whose parents cannot afford to keep them. It is the loss of her sons and her marriage that propel her to start photographing the now homeless and penniless people walking the streets of San Francisco.
“What right did she have to take photographs of strangers? But she knew these faces. Even if she had never seen a single one of these people before, something deep inside her recognized them. These people had been made to feel inadequate, abnormal. Their lives were disfigured by circumstance.”
Eventually, Mary and Vera meet up one afternoon in 1936 in Nipomo, California, where Mary is waiting on the road by the side of a broken-down car with her two children and an infant cradled in her arms. Vera, working for the government taking photographs and documenting the life of the migrant farmers whose lives have been broken, initially drives by Mary but decides to return and take several photos of her with her children, one of which will make them both famous and immortal.
Back in present-day California, the death of Walker’s father leads him to clean out the family home. In doing so, he stumbles upon a secret lodged in the photograph that Vera took of Mary over 70 years ago.
MARY COIN is a well-written, powerfully quiet, and haunting novel. Marisa Silver lovingly and painstakingly brings to life those who were behind the photograph of a woman whose expression of desperation and pain etched on her face still speaks to us almost a century later.
Reviewed by Jennifer Romanello on March 22, 2013