Wednesday, July 8, 2015

MARY COIN by Marisa Silver

This novel has three main characters:   photographer Vera Dare, “migrant mother” Mary Coin, and modern-day college professor Walker Dodge.  Mary Coin is the quintessential farm worker during the Depression, struggling to feed seven children.  She is the fictional counterpart of Florence Thompson, who in real life had ten children (!) and was the subject of a photo that appeared in many publications as an example of the dire times.  Vera Dare represents Dorothea Lange, the photographer who snaps photos of Mary and her children while they wait for a car repair.  The look of consternation on Mary’s face says it all.  Her life has become an endless quest to find work, no matter how back-breaking, and she can find herself abruptly out of work at any moment as a result of failed crops or unpredictable weather.  The author delays enlightening us as to how Walker fits in until late in the novel, but it’s clear that Walker’s forebears managed to survive the Depression without losing their land or their homes.  Mary and Vera, on the other hand, have mouths to feed and men who don’t always stick around when the going gets tough.  The irony is that Vera has a much steadier income than Mary, but Vera is the one who has to put her sons into the care of another family when she can no longer make ends meet.  Plus, her travels to document the plight of the workers create too much instability for the children anyway.  She and Mary have only the one encounter with each other, but Vera makes the most of it, eliciting information from Mary that Mary would not normally have shared with a stranger.  The fact that Mary’s photo becomes ubiquitous somewhat rankles her later in life, as Vera never offered her a penny for using her likeness.  Vera never profited directly from the photo, either, but she certainly made a name for herself with it.  Finally, the tie-in with Walker’s family is worth the wait.

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