Family Secrets Emerge from Iconic Photograph in Marisa Silver’s ‘Mary Coin’

Lee Polevoi

Mary Coin

By Marisa Silver

Blue Rider Press

322 Pages


The famous gaze turns inward as well as outward in Dorothea Lange's iconic Depression-era photograph, Migrant Mother. The woman in the center of the photograph looks not into the camera but into her troubled past and off to an unknowable future. All that’s certain is that the life she currently shares with the children in the photograph (there are others as well) must come to something more than their present existence of misery, deprivation and back-breaking labor.


The subject of this legendary photograph was named Florence Owens Thompson.  She was 32 years old when Lange, driving by a pea-pickers camp in Nipomo, California in 1936, happened upon her and her seven children living in a rudimentary shelter. Lange snapped six photographs and went on her way. Migrant Mother became an emblematic image of the poverty that engulfed millions of hapless families across the country.


In her new novel, Marisa Silver richly re-imagines the subject of this photograph as Mary Coin, struggling to keep her ever-growing family alive. The photographer who captures the melancholy image is a polio-stricken artist named Vera Dare. Silver tells their stories both before they cross paths in California’s Imperial Valley and as they diverge in the years thereafter. For different reasons, the well-known photograph haunts their lives:


“The picture had been effective because every single person who looked at it had to decide whose side he was on. But over time it had been so reproduced, so co-opted, so burdened with the obligation to represent an entire era, that it had become something both more and less than the image she had taken that day … Sometimes, when [Vera] came across the image in a book or an article, she averted her eyes.”


A third character, Walker Dodge, rounds out the cast in Mary Coin. A divorced father of two, Dodge is a present-day social historian traveling up and down the state of California in search of unglamorous small-town family histories, “the buried and forgotten stories … the molecules of the past that are overlooked by most traditional academics.” His father George Dodge, owner of a vast agricultural complex, has just died, and Walker has taken it upon himself to comb through the deceased’s papers, “the collected stuff of a life that was largely withheld from him.” The family secrets he unearths in the course of his research links him to the life of Mary Coin and the work of Vera Dare.



Mary’s story begins in Tahlequah, Oklahoma, in 1920, and Silver quickly presents us with a vivid description of her painfully hardscrabble life:


“The sod walls of the house were alive with worms and centipedes and colonies of ants, and after the sun went down and the world beyond the windows went black, it was sometimes possible for Mary to imagine that her family lived underground, and that the house was nothing but a cave dug into dirt … Mary’s senses flattened out during the day, numbing themselves to withstand the onslaught of sun and the squalls of hot wind that moved the dry dirt off the ground into busy whorls that just as quickly settled … But at night, her eyes and ears came alive, and distinct noises seemed menacing to her, as if they were warnings of some kind.”


Still a teenager, Mary leaves Oklahoma with her new husband, Toby, and in what seems a blink of an eye, several children appear, a tragic illness fells Toby and soon Mary is on her own, taking whatever farm work she can find to keep her family intact. The spirited Oklahoma girl becomes a brittle but fiercely independent young woman who will do anything for her children.


Vera Dare takes studio photographs of San Francisco socialites before her own troubled marriage falls apart and she’s left to support two sons. Vera’s emotional and artistic journey to independence culminates in a job working for the U.S. Resettlement Administration, documenting the lives of families struggling through the Depression. Despite the subsequent volume of her work, the photograph she takes (almost on a whim) by the side of the road in 1936 eventually defines her life, much to her chagrin.


Mary Coin moves at a deliberate pace, never rushing to achieve some foregone conclusion, but rather taking the reader deep into the lives of these sensitive and emotionally fraught individuals. Marisa Silver’s novel contemplates the mysteries of art and life, achieving the impressive goal of making us see Migrant Mother through fresh eyes:


“Why did the woman look away? The question was vexing. Maybe she had lost her nerve and this turning away was a willful disappearance, the way a child covers his eyes and believes no one can see him. Perhaps she thought Vera pitied her. Vera hoped that wasn’t the case. Pity was a horrible thing.”


Author Bio:

Lee Polevo, Highbrow Magazine’s chief book critic, is the author of a novel, The Moon in Deep Winter, and is currently completing a new novel, The Confessions of Gabriel Ash. 

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