Fiction gives photograph a new dimension

Published 12:00 am Sunday, May 12, 2013

“Mary Coin,” by Marisa Silver. Blue Rider Press. 2013. 336 pp.
Dorothea Lange was an American documentary photographer who, among other things, worked for the Farm Security Administration during the Depression documenting the plight of the struggling rural sharecroppers, the migrant laborers and rural poverty in general. It was then she took the photograph she is best known for, the Migrant Mother. The name of the woman in the photograph was Florence Owens Thompson, though her name would remain generally unknown for almost 40 years, 13 years after Lange had died.
Marisa Silver has re-created the lives of these two women in her new book, “Mary Coin.” Mary Coin is Florence; Vera Dare is Dorothea. A third primary character fills out the book, Walker Dodge, a professor of cultural history who is trying to solve a mystery in the famous photograph, one that may have much to do with his own life.
Silver begins her story with Walker in the present day; Walker has returned to the house he grew up in, then visits the nursing home where his father, George, lays dying. George owned and operated Dodge farms all his life, and it is only after George’s funeral that Walker meets his uncle Edward, who was cut from the will many years earlier. George never spoke of it to Walker, and Edward was left clueless at the time of the severance — a mystery that will likely never be solved.
Mary Coin had her picture taken once before, in 1920, when she was a bold young girl gone to town and a photographer offered to take her picture for a dollar. He was seeking pictures of Indians to sell back East. Mary was not full-blood, and a little light-skinned, but she made the photograph.
Mary works some for Carlotta Coin in her house, but the Coin boys not only work the farm, they live in the barn, because this is a second marriage for Carlotta and she won’t have another woman’s boys in her house. One of the Coin boys is Toby, and he and Mary fall in together. By the next year, they are married; she is expecting a child. Before the baby is even born, the Coins sell the farm, and Toby and Mary set out for a life of their own, riding in an old Hudson. They are going west, where work is. First there are sawmills and life is somewhat good, even as more and more babies arrive. But a series of disasters, some personal, some national, begin to strike, and by the 1930s times are getting hard.
We pick up the story of Vera Dare in 1920 when she is working as a studio photographer in San Francisco, taking portraits of the rich and famous. Dare marries an artist named Everett and has two children, and for the next 12 years they live an uncomfortable life as her husband’s paintings sell less and less, as he has more and more affairs, and as they are separated by work. In 1932 times are hard for all, and Dare and Everett live apart in their own studios while the boys are sent to live with a woman who takes in children of those who can no longer afford them.
Dare needs work. She takes her heavy camera down on the street among the destitute and unemployed and begins to take photographs. “A man in a crushed and dirty fedora leaned against the wooden railing, his arms protectively shielding a dented metal cup. She framed him. She adjusted the focus. She took a picture.” And thus the photos that Vera Dare would be known for begin.
Mary Coin’s life becomes yet harder as she and her family continue to work the fields; she has a brief affair with an overseer named Charlie Dodge who walks away when she becomes pregnant and has a sickly baby she names George. A day comes when they are searching for work and the old Hudson breaks down by a field where the crop has frozen. As some of the males take the radiator for repairs, a female photographer drives up; her name is Vera Dare. Making conversation as best she can, Vera Dare takes six photographs of Mary Coin and some of her children. One photograph would become perhaps the most famous photo ever taken of America’s Great Depression. Neither woman will ever see the other again.
At this point, Part One of “Mary Coin” ends. So far, the portrayals of Dorothea Lange as Vera Dare, and of Florence Owens Thompson as Mary Coin, have been fairly accurate historically. As one would expect, these facts are probably closer to the truth on the Lange side than on the Thompson side, simply due to their circumstances. Yet there is plenty of creativity and enough fictional scenarios in Part One that the reader is quite aware they are reading a novel while the two photographs mentioned in detail ground the novel in fact.
Part Two of “Mary Coin” jumps to end-of-life scenes for both Vera Dare, in 1965, and Mary Coin, in 1982, and at this juncture the reader gets updates on children and grandchildren of both characters. We also find the two women engaging in some reminiscing, both inwardly and with their offspring. Some of this reminiscing involves thoughts of the other woman and the time they met. Mary Coin, of course, knows who Vera Dare is, and has for some years, as Vera’s photograph of Mary made the former famous. Vera Dare found out Mary’s name at the very end of life, from a forwarded letter, a letter she never answered. Part Two looks at the living as well, specifically the third central character. The reader will spend some time with Walker Dodge, and his offspring. Walker will do the reader a big favor in that he will help bring endings together for all of the parties involved.
Marisa Silver has written an outstanding novel portraying two women of immense historical significance to 20th century America. Though the reader probably only knows one of these women from history, Silver will equalize your familiarity by the end of her story. The appreciation of both of their accomplishments will be understood. Neither, in reality or in novelization, did either of the women live an easy life; they both fought battles and demons until they lay on their deathbeds. Amazingly, Coin lives the longest, as did Thompson outlive Lange. Much more of Part Two has been created by Silver from her own thoughts, but there are enough contacts with the real lives to ground everything in truth.
The pace of “Mary Coin” is pinpoint perfect and characterization is impeccable. When the reader spends time with the three major characters, he or she will feel as if they are there standing in the shadows. The reader will feel the pain, and the mites of joy, that the characters experience, and they will be spirited back in time to what may have been this country’s greatest challenge. Reading “Mary Coin” becomes a shared experience; a book and a reader as one. Once the last page is turned, the reader will have to determine several things — just what has Walker Dodge found out, and, do I keep this book to read again later or pass it on to a friend who needs a really good book?