Sunday, November 8, 2015

"Mary Coin," by Marisa Silver - What Was Behind that Famous Photo?

Usually I decide what to read by reading (many) book reviews, and by choosing the latest books by my already favorite writers. But of course I also browse in bookstores and libraries and sometimes find books that surprise and impress me. That is how, when I wanted a book-on-CD for a recent short road trip, I found in my local library the novel “Mary Coin” (2013, Penguin Audio) by Marisa Silver. What initially caught my attention was the (slightly altered) photo on the front of the CD case: the famous 1936 Dorothea Lange photo, titled “Migrant Mother,” of a poor woman and her children in the agricultural Central Valley of California, working as pickers, during the Depression era. The actual woman in the photo was later found to be Florence Owens Thompson; she and her family had very mixed feelings about the fame of the photo. Marisa Silver takes this basic story and tells a novelized version of it from the perspectives of three main characters over many years, before, during, and after the taking of the photo. The first is the woman in the photo, here named Mary Coin. The second is the photographer, here called Vera Dare. The third is a professor, Walker Dodge, who is, he finds, probably connected to the story through a long-ago secret, and who is now investigating the background of everyone involved, out of both academic and personal interest. The novel ranges back and forth among these stories, and back and forth in time. The story is often sad -- especially about the brutal poverty that some of the characters experienced -- but compelling, and the characters held my interest. It is of particular interest to see how women at the time, with and without money, often had to take on much of the burden of survival for themselves and their families. In their own separate ways, both of the two main women characters were incredibly courageous. The reminders of this painful time period -- for women, men, and children -- in American history are chilling.
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