Historical fiction broadens our understanding of social and historical context.
By JEFFREY ANN GOUDIE
Special to The Star
The historical figures who inspire Marisa Silvers textured novel, Mary Coin, are Dorothea Lange and Florence Owens Thompson. Langes famous photo Migrant Mother, which graces the book jacket in slightly altered form, defined the dispossessed of the Dirty Thirties. Silver has taken the contours of the biographies of the Depression-era photographer and her most famous, then-anonymous, subject and altered and imagined their stories. The result is a novel that is layered, recursive, wise, sensitive and elegant.
In Mary Coin, the migrant mother is the eponymous Mary Coin, and the woman who captured her image is Vera Dare. Walker Dodge is a present-day social historian who studies photographs for clues to the larger narrative of the past. The trios stories alternate in separate sections but intersect in unexpected ways.
When the novel opens, Walker has been summoned to his familys immense fruit groves in Californias Central Valley because his recalcitrant father is dying.
Walkers ideal would have been to front-load his children, Isaac and Alice, with all his foundational stories, no matter how humiliating to give them a solid sense of where they came from. In other words, he wants to be different from his withholding father. But he is more often absent than present in their daily lives as the noncustodial parent. Even when his marriage was intact, he was often immersed in his scholarship.
At his university, Walker teaches a popular class on decoding photographs. He is fond of telling his students that his class is not about looking, but rather about seeing.
When we first meet Mary Coin, she is a girl in Tahlequah, Okla., in 1920. Her mother is a Cherokee widow whose white husband, Marys father, died years before. The family lives in a sod house whose interior is lined with newspapers.
Silver writes that Mary had read nearly every inch of newsprint covering the house. Stories a decade old or more were glued next to pieces about the war in Europe, so that it seemed to Mary that time did not so much progress as circle back on itself .
Mary is a smart, discerning girl when her mother pulls her out of school at 16 to help at home. She also works for the Coins, whose land adjoins theirs. A year later Mary is married to Toby Coin and pregnant with their first child when her father-in-law sells the family land. By 1925 the couple are in a California sawmill camp with Tobys brothers and their families. Their fifth child is born as the stock market crashes, and Toby loses his job. The families stick together, following sawmill jobs around rural California. In quick succession a fire destroys their most recent camp, Toby becomes ill and dies, and Mary strikes out with their children, who now number six. The Depression is in full swing.
We first meet Vera Dare in 1920 as well. A studio portrait photographer of wealthy subjects in San Francisco, she pretends to be a bohemian with a motley crew of artists and poets.
But she was born Vera Duerr, daughter of a German lawyer and his wife. As a carefree girl in Hoboken, N.J., 13 years before, she contracted polio. Left with a decided limp, she is told by her mother that mediocrity is not an option: You see, mein Kind, you cant make mistakes. You have to be better than everyone else.
The one person who disregards her disfigurement is her jolly father. But one day he fails to return from his law office. Veras mother finds work in Manhattan. Rather than studying, the schoolgirl Vera traipses the Lower East Side in search of her father, developing a lifelong pattern of studying passers-by.
Vera marries an artist 20 years her senior and 12 inches taller. Although she makes more than her share of the family income with her studio work, her husbands artistic career takes center stage. On a family trip with the couples two boys in New Mexico, where she minds the children while her husband paints and pursues affairs, the oppressed Vera begins to see her photography as art.
By 1932, Vera and her philandering husband are living in their separate studios, their sons farmed out to a woman who takes in children whose families cant afford to keep them.
Vera begins to wander the streets of San Francisco, taking pictures of the out-of-work men milling on the sidewalk. By 1936 she is employed by the government to photograph and document victims of the Depression.
Driving by a pea field outside Nipomo, Calif., Vera Dare circles back to take a picture of a woman with a baby at her breast and children by her side. The woman is Mary Coin. The baby is her seventh child. Mary Coin gives her age as 32 and tells Vera she and her kids are living on killed birds and frozen vegetables.
In 2010, at his now-dead fathers California home, rummaging through his grandfathers extensive library, Walker Dodge finds a newspaper photo stashed in a poetry collection. The photo is the iconic Migrant Mother. The intersecting lines that connect the books three disparate characters are woven together. How Mary Coin ended up with just six children keeps us flipping the pages.
Walker, the social historian, says, we are slow to learn how to see what is in front of us.
This resonant novel, teasing clues from a famous photograph, keeps us both looking and seeing. And admiring.
Jeffrey Ann Goudie is a freelance book critic living in Topeka.