Sunday, August 25, 2013

Review: Mary Coin by Marisa Silver

You've probably seen the iconic Dorothea Lange "Migrant Mother" photograph that graces the cover of Mary Coin. This stark portrait is one of the most recognizable images of the Great Depression. And yet because it has come to convey so much, very few people stop to think about the woman and children captured here in their poverty and hardship. And yet they were very real people who lived lives well beyond the photograph. Marisa Silver has created a fictional story about the woman in the picture, the woman behind the camera, and a modern day historian whose connection to this photograph and the woman in it will slowly be revealed over the course of the novel and in so doing has created a striking and original read.

Told in a triple stranded narrative, the novel spans almost 90 years from before the taking of the photograph to the repercussions long afterwards. Opening in the present day with Walter Dodge returning to his childhood home as his silent and failing father is taken out of that home for the last time, the novel moves into the history professor's life, his unhappiness, his fraught relationship with his children, and the gaps in his family history that he will be exploring as he clears out his father's home and the accumulation of decades. And then the novel moves even further back than Walter's past into the stories, lives, and challenges of Mary Coin, the subject of the photograph, and Vera Dare, the photographer. Both of the women's lives are fully examined and their histories presented separately.

Mary Coin's childhood on a scratch existence farm, from her marriage to the always sickly but kind Toby Coin and their ever growing family, to what drove them off of their own land and into the migrant life that would prove so harrowing are all meticulously covered. Each of the events of her life which molded her into the woman in the photograph, beaten down and yet unyielding, is captured in straight, unforgiving prose. Photographer Vera Dare's life is also laid bare with the same honest and unflinching eye, her lack of self-esteem, her inability to leave her philandering husband, her ambivalence towards motherhood, and her drive to document what she saw, to grow professionally if not personally. These two women's paths would cross for only a few brief minutes and yet together they would come to define an era. How the puzzle piece of modern day Walter fits into all of this lies within the photograph itself, exposed for all the world to see if they would just look.

This is beautifully written and thought-provoking. Silver's imagined story of the iconic photograph and the women connected to it is fascinating in its potential. That she not only created a story for the photo itself but also fully convincing histories for both Mary Coin and Vera Dare and allowed the truth of George Dodge's story to come out through Walker without it ever actually being confirmed, just as so much in life, makes this masterful. Motherhood and survival, what is right, and the lives available to women and to mothers, with or without men, plus the idea of the artifacts, photographs and documents and the ephemera of everyday, that tell us the truth of history all wind through the plot. History is made up of the personal but growing outward, growing larger; its concentric circles touching more and more people and offering understanding on both the national level of the Depression and on the very private level of family secrets and truths.  The storylines of the two women are more compelling than that of Walter so the novel is a little bit unbalanced but overall, Silver's novel is ultimately a well-crafted, quiet, and considered examination of Depression-era life and of the people who struggled through it.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of the book to review.

1 comment:

  1. I've been looking forward to reading this. I'm glad to hear that it's aas good as it looks.


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