Mary Coin

by Marisa Silver

Reviewed by Margaret Donsbach

Mary Coin was inspired by the story of Depression-era photographer Dorothea Lange and the woman in her famous photograph Migrant Mother, Florence Owens Thompson. The novel consists of three narratives: one in which a present-day man reflects on his father's life and death; one from the fictional Mary Coin, whose fortunes will go from bad to worse as a migrant laborer; and one from the fictional photographer Vera Dare. Before telling the story of a photograph which echoes Lange's photograph of Thompson, the novel draws readers into the everyday lives of each narrator.

The warmth, thoughtfulness and vivid historical texture with which the migrant mother and her photographer are portrayed make the two women's stories absorbing and moving. Living with her Cherokee mother in a sod house in Oklahoma, Mary Coin falls in love with a boy who had "managed to outwit all expectation just by staying alive...." Meanwhile, Vera Dare's childhood battle with polio has left her overprotected and quietly rebellious. By 1920, she has become a society photographer both envious and scornful of the beautiful, pampered women she photographs.

The present-day frame story of Walker Dodge is less interesting and seems to have been included only to supply a final twist in the story. The parallels between the two main characters and the historical women who inspired them give the impression of a retelling of their lives, fictionalized in various ways for clarity and storytelling flow, and supported with sensitive reconstructions of what their inner hopes and fears might have been - until the somewhat strained episode that finally links Walker Dodge's story with the others'. When a wealthy agriculturalist's son takes a special interest in scruffy, starving, anxious Mary Coin, it feels like the story has been forced in a direction that doesn't fit the characters or their world. With that reservation, this is a novel well worth reading for its otherwise insightful reimagining of the lives of two remarkable Depression-era women. (2013; 322 pages)

More about Mary Coin at Powell's Books or

Other novels set during the Depression:

The Grapes of Wrath by John Steinbeck (1939), about an Oklahoma family forced from their home during the Dust Bowl who struggle to survive as migrant workers in California; won the 1940 Pulitzer Prize for Fiction. More info

Billy Bathgate by E.L. Doctorow (1989), about a fifteen-year-old boy hired as an errand boy by a mobster in the Bronx.
More info

Bucking the Sun by Ivan Doig (1996), about a Montana family who work on the Fort Peck dam, a 1933 New Deal project to dam the Missouri River.
More info

Nonfiction about Dorothea Lange:

Dorothea Lange: Grab a Hunk of Lightning by Elizabeth Partridge (2013).
More info

Dorothea Lange: A Life Beyond Limits by Linda Gordon (2009).
More info

California on the Breadlines: Dorothea Lange, Paul Taylor and the Making of a New Deal Narrative by Jan Goggans (2010).
More info


Florence Owens Thompson at Wikipedia

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