The cover of Marisa Silver’s novel “Mary Coin” (2013) broadly hints at the story inside. It shows a distressed woman’s face, darkened by the sun, and a child’s head on her shoulder. You’ll most likely recognize it from Dorothea Lange’s iconic photograph from 1936, “Migrant Mother.” Silver says though she had seen the photograph many times over the years, the moment that she spotted it in the Museum of Modern Art when she herself was a mother was transformative. A tag on the wall said that the woman in the photo had remained anonymous until she was on her deathbed. Silver, an author of well-received novels and short story collections, yearned to reimagine the story behind this photograph.
Silver’s creative and engaging tale involves three people over a long period of their lives—Mary, a young woman, struggling to survive through the harsh years of the Dust Bowl and the Depression; Vera, a privileged photographer leading a bohemian life, and Walter, a contemporary professor of social history. It is impressive how Silver seamlessly manages the transitions from one to another and pleasing to see connections happen.
We meet Mary Coin in 1910 Oklahoma where she lives with her dirt-poor family. Seventeen and pregnant, she marries and moves to California with her sickly husband and their growing family. They must move from one mill town to another for work to feed the family. After her husband’s death, she is forced to work in the cotton fields while her youngest kids run free.
During the same period, Vera Drake is living a life of parties and promise in San Francisco when she meets and marries an engaging painter. She lives in his shadow until they move to Taos, and she finds joy in documenting the land and the life in photos.
In present-day California, Walker Porter is a divorced father of two whose deep commitment to his job as a professor of social history and the fieldwork involved kept him away from the family more than his wife could tolerate. He tells his students, “This is a class about seeing … about looking past surfaces of predetermined historic and aesthetic values … to say, there is a story here, too, and I’m going to find out what it is.” Walker, we realize, is a stand-in for the author.
Silver was raised on the East Coast and moved to California as an adult. She says it was there she developed an understanding of the impact that land and weather has on people. Her sensitivity to struggling people, her wisdom and her gentle prose make “Mary Coin” a terrific read.