MARY COIN: a novel

 

MARY COIN : a novel

Author: Marisa Silver
Blue Rider Press | 2013
322 pages
Fiction|Great Depression|Migrant Farmers
Personal copy
Rated: ★★★★★

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In 1936, Dorothea Lange,  a documentary photographer for the Farm Security Administration, threaded her way through a crude “Pea-Pickers Camp” in Nipomo, California. She noted an unfortunate overnight freeze had destroyed the pea crop leaving hundreds of migrant families without work. The forlorn workers faced yet another bleak turn in their lives. Suddenly in the midst of this tragic scene, Lange spotted Frances Owens Thompson surrounded by her children and nursing her youngest child. Her series of six photos of the Thompson mother and her young family, that included the now world-famous image entitled, “Migrant Mother” was the capstone of her Depression Era work and did more than any other to humanize the cost of the Great Depression.

Marisa Silver crafted Mary Coin based on this iconic photograph (shown on the book’s cover) useing many of the authentic facts of Frances Owens Thompson and Dorothea Lange’s lives. In this personalized piece of speculative fiction, Frances becomes Mary Coin and our photographer is known as Vera Dare. Our third main character, Walker Dodge, is a modern day inquisitive professor, who finds a copy of Migrant Mother tucked away secretively in his deceased father’s things. Silver tweaked the known facts and inserts Walker Dodge’s quest to discover his father’s secret in just the right way to create a triad of characters that slowly lead toward an answer.

We learn that no matter how powerful a photograph can be, it is nothing more than a split second of a person’s life freeze-framed for posterity. A single photograph does not reveal a person’s life; only a moment stolen from a full life.

By choosing to focus on each individual’s strengths and weakness amid the deplorable times. we see that, regardless of social status, filthy rich or dirt poor, everyone suffered and survived as best they could.

This is not a maudlin story; it is a tribute to the internal strengths we as humans possess. Mary would be the first to tell you that you just pick yourself up and move on when life slaps you down. Life is not fair and never will be. The past is gone and the future is ahead. A single moment, trapped on film, does not tell anything about a person who lives through the flood of seconds comprising one’s whole life.

Shortly before her death as an old woman. Mary enters a museum and sees herself in the famous photograph. Standing there, she hears someone say, “You can see it all in her face.”

What all? What do you see?

She was a ghost in the room. [Like all] the other ghosts in the photographs lining the walls. . .None of them had known that one day they would be hanging in this museum, a single moment of their lives frozen into an indelible past like an insult you can never take back.

Mary turned again to face the picture and saw her reflection in the glass… Two women named Mary Coin.

Highly recommended reading.

 

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