Halfway through Marisa Silver’s crystalline new novel, Mary Coin, two women’s lives converge near a frost-blighted field of peas in Depression-era California.
Vera Dare, a government photographer, aims her camera at a rumpled migrant family. Her thoughts drift to her own children: two young boys sent to a boardinghouse, because she cannot afford to take care of them. The woman on the other side of the lens is Mary Coin, a single mother with seven hungry children who is barely scraping by as a migrant farmworker. In the photos, she cradles a sick infant and looks considerably older than her 32 years.
You might pause to take a long look at the book’s dust jacket and let Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” (cropped close and colorized) meld with the story. Lange documented farm-laborers for the Farm Security Administration, which sought to draw national attention to rural poverty. Lange’s iconic photo of Florence Owens Thompson, taken in 1936 near a California pea field, grounds Silver’s fictionalized account. Improvising on cues plucked from history, she fills in the emotional lives of the two women with carefully distilled details of survival, love and loss.
How do Vera and Mary inhabit the biographical outlines of Lange and Thompson? Silver gracefully conjures Mary’s Oklahoma childhood, as well a one-room sod house with centipedes inside the walls, and an earlier encounter with a traveling photographer who, struck by her Cherokee features, paid her to pose as a “real Indian princess.” She is seen as an idealized mother despite her desperate circumstances. “When she looked at her children playing their game of chase,” Silver writes, “she thought of them as a fist held up to fate.”
In contrast, the driven photographer is depicted as guilt-ridden, a woman who “felt her ambition as a disfigurement, something deeply unfeminine and not worthy of a mother.” The novel’s preoccupation with the exploitive, selective nature of photography invites an examination of its own pastiche of fact and fiction.
When, late in the novel, Mary comes face to face with her portrait hanging in a gallery, someone in the crowd says, “You can see it all in her face.” Mary wonders exactly what it is they see.
Hardship? Dignity? Courage? Mary Coin is Silver’s meditation on that question.
This book review originally appeared in High Country News.
By Marisa Silver
336 pages, $26.95