Mary Coin: A Novel (Paperback) - Common

by by Marisa Silver

Hardcover, 2014

Call number





Plume; Reprint edition (2014), Edition: 1st Edition


In 1936, a young mother resting by the side of a road in central California is spontaneously photographed by a woman documenting the migrant laborers who have taken to America's farms in search of work. Little personal information is exchanged, and neither woman has any way of knowing that they have produced what will become the most iconic image of the Great Depression. - from cover p.[2]

User reviews

LibraryThing member brenzi
Novelist Marisa Silver had an idea for a book that was really quite clever: she took the iconic photograph, Migrant Mother, and created a narrative around it. The mother, Florence Owens Thompson, became the eponymous Mary Coin. The photographer, the immensely talented and respected Dorothea Lange, became Vera Dare. And through flashbacks the author recreated their lives and that one moment in time that brought them together in 1936 on the side of the road when Vera worked as a photographer for the U.S. government’s Farm Security Administration, documenting the plight of migrant workers in California during the Great Depression and Mary was sitting in a make-shift tent with her six children.

As these two threads are brilliantly advanced in luminous prose I found myself easily drawn into the two lives that had more in common than an outsider might think. Two mothers, working hard for their children’s sake, without a husband, or with one who is often absent because in the end, this was a book about child-rearing. Mary’s children and Vera’s children are as much a part of the story as are Mary’s mother and Vera’s father. Mary and Vera would not have been the people they were had it not been for the parents they had. And without that they may never have met on that California road. Vera muses:

What right did she have to take photographs of strangers? But she knew these faces. Even if she had never seen a single one of these people before, something deep inside her recognized them. These people had been made to feel inadequate, abnormal. Their lives were disfigured by circumstances. She had to take their pictures because what she saw, what shesaw, marked her as much as a limp or the fact that she was the only gentile in a school filled with Jews or that her father did not love her enough to stay.” (Page 140)

So with all that going for it, what made this book fall a bit flat for me? Well it was that third thread that the author felt she needed to include. The thread that dealt with Walker Dodge in 2010 who is investigating his own family history, which comes fairly easy for him as his occupation is as a university professor who teaches students how to investigate historical artifacts. What he finds was just too contrived to me and had me wondering why the author would feel the need to include this when her story about the two women was so powerful. And the convenient coincidences that Walker uncovers were just too coincidental. What could have been an amazing story turned out to be, instead, a good story.
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LibraryThing member m2snick
I would venture that most of us of an age of 40 or more are aware of the Dorothea Lange 1936 photograph called “Migrant Mother" who was actually Florence Owens Thompson. It has become an iconic image of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression and the migration westward of the families driven from their homes at that time. The photograph, used as the cover of this book, immediately drew me to it.
Marisa Silver has imagined the lives behind this image and has drawn a unique vision of that era. Casting Vera Dare as Lange and Mary Coin as Florence Owens Thompson she has crafted
an imaginative and interesting story. Into this she has added a third character, Walker Dodge, a social historian, who, mysteriously, is linked to Mary Coin. The unraveling of this mystery aids in the construction of the character Mary. The mystery is not resolved until the end of the book.
Mary Coin is a very well crafted book. It covers the years of 1920 through 2011 and it does so quite effortlessly. I really enjoyed this novel and would recommend it to anyone, but especially to those interested in the stories of the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, and the migrant workers trying to survive the times.
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LibraryThing member maryreinert
After a bit of a slow start, I found myself getting more and more pulled into this novel. There are really three stories being told here: the story of modern day Walker and his dysfunctional family, Vera the Depression era photographer and her shaky relationships, and the story of Mary Coin, the Depression mother as depicted in that famous photograph shown on the cover of the book. None of these characters are particularly likable; they all have some real character flaws, but all do what must be done in the circumstances.

At times, particularly in the sections telling Mary's story, I felt the writing was flowery. The writing style just didn't seem to fit the no-nonsense hard-scrabble life of Mary Coin. Although Mary did become alive to me, her husband, Tony, and the other men were much harder to envision and believe.

I did like how the three plot lines came together at the end. Maybe to some it might seem contrived, but to me, it was very believable.

I can't think of many Depression era novels (Steinbeck aside) that depict the life of women as well as this one did. The people were poor, uneducated, and often desperate. That doesn't make for an "attractive" heroine. I also felt the author did a good job in depicting Mary's family as grown children. In short, this was a good read and one that I would recommend to anyone interested in Depression era fiction.
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LibraryThing member shazjhb
Great book. So interesting to read about the depression. Liked the twists and turns even though, it was possible to guess the threads,
LibraryThing member PeggyDean
Dorothea Lange's famous depression-era photograph, "Migrant Mother", forms the framework for this novel. Marisa Silver weaves a haunting story as she moves between life in the migrant camps and the unfolding career of the photographer. Resolution is provided through the work of a cultural historian researching his own family history. Silver's descriptions of the hardships of the era will linger with the reader and will appeal to those who enjoy historical fiction or novels focused on family relationships.… (more)
LibraryThing member bonsam
The iconic picture, "Migrant Mother" by photographer Lange is the center of Mirisa Silver's well done work on the impact of the depression most particularly on the poor of the USA. While fictional are the characters, the story of the times and people is not and is eerie in the sense that history is so often repeated. Here is a story, exceedingly well crafted of those who exploited the situation of the time to their own gain and those who tolerated it to their detriment, ever hopeful for change.… (more)
LibraryThing member whitreidtan
You've probably seen the iconic Dorothea Lange "Migrant Mother" photograph that graces the cover of Mary Coin. This stark portrait is one of the most recognizable images of the Great Depression. And yet because it has come to convey so much, very few people stop to think about the woman and children captured here in their poverty and hardship. And yet they were very real people who lived lives well beyond the photograph. Marisa Silver has created a fictional story about the woman in the picture, the woman behind the camera, and a modern day historian whose connection to this photograph and the woman in it will slowly be revealed over the course of the novel and in so doing has created a striking and original read.

Told in a triple stranded narrative, the novel spans almost 90 years from before the taking of the photograph to the repercussions long afterwards. Opening in the present day with Walter Dodge returning to his childhood home as his silent and failing father is taken out of that home for the last time, the novel moves into the history professor's life, his unhappiness, his fraught relationship with his children, and the gaps in his family history that he will be exploring as he clears out his father's home and the accumulation of decades. And then the novel moves even further back than Walter's past into the stories, lives, and challenges of Mary Coin, the subject of the photograph, and Vera Dare, the photographer. Both of the women's lives are fully examined and their histories presented separately.

Mary Coin's childhood on a scratch existence farm, from her marriage to the always sickly but kind Toby Coin and their ever growing family, to what drove them off of their own land and into the migrant life that would prove so harrowing are all meticulously covered. Each of the events of her life which molded her into the woman in the photograph, beaten down and yet unyielding, is captured in straight, unforgiving prose. Photographer Vera Dare's life is also laid bare with the same honest and unflinching eye, her lack of self-esteem, her inability to leave her philandering husband, her ambivalence towards motherhood, and her drive to document what she saw, to grow professionally if not personally. These two women's paths would cross for only a few brief minutes and yet together they would come to define an era. How the puzzle piece of modern day Walter fits into all of this lies within the photograph itself, exposed for all the world to see if they would just look.

This is beautifully written and thought-provoking. Silver's imagined story of the iconic photograph and the women connected to it is fascinating in its potential. That she not only created a story for the photo itself but also fully convincing histories for both Mary Coin and Vera Dare and allowed the truth of George Dodge's story to come out through Walker without it ever actually being confirmed, just as so much in life, makes this masterful. Motherhood and survival, what is right, and the lives available to women and to mothers, with or without men, plus the idea of the artifacts, photographs and documents and the ephemera of everyday, that tell us the truth of history all wind through the plot. History is made up of the personal but growing outward, growing larger; its concentric circles touching more and more people and offering understanding on both the national level of the Depression and on the very private level of family secrets and truths. The storylines of the two women are more compelling than that of Walter so the novel is a little bit unbalanced but overall, Silver's novel is ultimately a well-crafted, quiet, and considered examination of Depression-era life and of the people who struggled through it.
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LibraryThing member krbrancolini
I read an article on Marisa Silver in the LA Times and ran out to buy this book. Earlier this year I read Eight Girls Taking Pictures, based on the lives of lesser-known woman photographers, but Dorothea Lange and her photo Migrant Mother have always intrigued me. This beautifully-written book offers a fictional exploration of the lives of two women that touch very briefly but with consequences for both women. The third main character, history professor Walker Dodge, is completely fictional and more tangential to the book, but also important to the overall narrative.

Silver does a masterful job of interweaving the stories of the three main character, beginning with Walker in 2010, then moving to 1920 with Mary Coin (Florence Owens Thompson) and Vera Dare (Dorothea Lange). The book focuses on Mary and Vera from 1920 to 1936, when the photo Migrant Mother was shot by the side of the road in central California. The encounter lasted less than 10 minutes. Silver handles Mary's story with sensitivity. She had seven children by the time she was 32 and one might ask, "Why not stop having children?," but the book makes it clear why and how this has happened. Vera is also a mother, with a failed marriage and re-marriage to a man who works alongside her documenting the hardships of life on the margins during the Great Depression. Lest anyone think that financial disaster bears any resemblance to the recent Great Recession should read this book. I also just saw a documentary on hunger in the U.S. called A Place at the Table and although it's a travesty that children still go to bed hungry in the U.S. in 2013, Mary and her children were literally starving.

I'll let you find out for yourself the connection between Walker Dodge and Mary Coin. This is a wonderful book that sent me to the library for more books by Marisa Silver and a biography of Dorothea Lange.
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LibraryThing member muddyboy
This is the story of Mary Coin, a Great Depression era woman who raises a family of six children primarily by herself working as a migrant farm worker. The book is also the story of a woman photographer who takes an iconic photo of Mary which will give both of them immortality up to this day. It is also the story of a man living in the present who will be linked with these women in ways that he must discover. This is a well written easy paced book with very little trauma or upset. Everything is taken in stride. This is a book that lends itself to the movie industry and I wouldn't be surprised to see it some day on the big screen.… (more)
LibraryThing member Maryka
Very well crafted and interesting rendition of the story behind this classic photograph.
LibraryThing member LonelyReader
Silver's book Mary Coin examines the photograph "Migrant Mother" by Dorothea Lange. I have always been a fan of Lange and enjoyed reading a fictional account of what happened to the photographer and woman in the photograph. The book is divided in the perspective of 3 people: Walker (grandson of woman in the photograph), Vera (photographer), and Mary (the woman in the photograph). I enjoyed how the three stories were intertwined throughout the book. The information about the Great Depression added wonderful detail to the lives of Vera and Mary, two women who lived very different lives during that time.… (more)
LibraryThing member m2snick
I would venture that most of us of an age of 40 or more are aware of the Dorothea Lange 1936 photograph called “Migrant Mother" who was actually Florence Owens Thompson. It has become an iconic image of the Dust Bowl and the Great Depression and the migration westward of the families driven from their homes at that time. The photograph, used as the cover of this book, immediately drew me to it.
Marisa Silver has imagined the lives behind this image and has drawn a unique vision of that era. Casting Vera Dare as Lange and Mary Coin as Florence Owens Thompson she has crafted
an imaginative and interesting story. Into this she has added a third character, Walker Dodge, a social historian, who, mysteriously, is linked to Mary Coin. The unraveling of this mystery aids in the construction of the character Mary. The mystery is not resolved until the end of the book.
Mary Coin is a very well crafted book. It covers the years of 1920 through 2011 and it does so quite effortlessly. I really enjoyed this novel and would recommend it to anyone, but especially to those interested in the stories of the Dust Bowl, the Great Depression, and the migrant workers trying to survive the times.
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LibraryThing member lkernagh
I love the old saying, “A picture is worth a thousand words.” In Silver’s case, a picture is an opportunity to tell the story behind the iconic “Migrant Mother” photograph of subject Florence Owens Thompson, taken by photographer Dorothea Lange and published in 1936. Bringing to life the Dust Bowl Depression of the 1930’s, the story Silver weaves is told from the point of view of three fictionalized narrators: Depression-era migrant worker Mary Coin, photographer Vera Dare and in the modern day, social historian Walker Dodge. Written more like a series of connected stories and using biographical details as a starting point, this is squarely a work of speculative fiction. The thoughts, feelings and emotions of the characters are all creations by Silver. The portrayal of the era is stark and powerful. Silver does not try to sugar coat what was a very difficult time for so many people. Relying on broad themes of identity and survival, each of the three narrators face their own unique struggles. Under Silver’s hand, Mary and Vera are rigid, almost unyielding and it is only later in the story where we get to see glimpses of the compassion and uncertainty that lies beneath the surface. Favorite quote: “Because answers are inert things that stop inquiry. They make you think you have finished looking. But you are never finished. There are always discoveries that will turn everything you think you know on its head and that will make you ask all over again: Who are we?” Through Mary Coin, Silver attempts to follow this line of reasoning. Does she succeed? I think she does, as this story has opened my eyes to more closely scrutinize and ask questions about the images I encounter.… (more)
LibraryThing member reigningstars
3 1/2 stars- It was interesting reading a story (although mostly fictionalized) about this famous photograph that most of us have seen and wondered "What was she thinking and feeling in this moment"?
I never knew this picture that I had seen quite a few times and is pretty much the face for The Great Depression was taking in Nipomo! I grew up in Santa Maria & Nipomo and being surrounded by fields and the hills and seeing thousands of workers out there are the norm and I didn't question what life might be like for them. It wasn't until I was a little older that my great grandma told me about how when her and my great grandfather had first moved to California, they worked out in the fields picking cotton, strawberries, peas etc, and how brutal and backbreaking the work is and the conditions of the camps and this was after the depression.

Mary's story fascinated me, all that she endured I cannot even fathom. Unfortunately Vera's and Walker's not as much, it seemed to drag the story down a bit. I do love the thought provoking question this book aroused: A photograph says a thousand words, but how much of them are true?
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LibraryThing member tloeffler
Marisa Silver has taken the iconic picture by Dorothea Lange, "Migrant Woman," and fashioned a story around her and Florence Owens Thompson (the woman in the picture). Names changed, of course, and mostly fiction, based loosely on Lange's life, I loved the way the story flipped from one perspective to another. The characters were not perfect people, so they seemed very real, and I could see the woman in the picture saying and doing the things she did. It was hard to convince myself that it was fiction. Excellent!… (more)
LibraryThing member rivercityreading

“‘You can see it all in her face,’ someone else said. What all? What do you see?“
Dorothea Lange’s iconic “Migrant Mother” photograph has elicited similar responses from thousands of people since it was taken in 1936. In Mary Coin, Marisa Silver has created a detailed history behind the image and its impact on American culture. The novel focuses on three distinct but connected characters, starting with Mary Coin well before her image was frozen as the mother in the photograph. Silver details her willingness to go to unimaginable lengths to hold her family together. Hundreds of miles away, Vera Dare is an insecure but talented photographer seeking the perfect outlet, despite an unsupportive family. And in the present-day, Walker Dodge is a history professor, trying to teach his students to look deeper into the history in front of them, while struggling with a family story he can't seem to unravel.

Silver does a fantastic job of knitting the lives of these three characters together, while staying historically accurate and culturally relevant. She is able to take a photo so many imagine they know the story behind and actually create one - a story that, in the end, we could all nod and say we saw in her face.
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LibraryThing member BookConcierge
In the depths of the Great Depression photographer Dorothea Lange was hired to capture the toll on American citizens. Her many photos were sent to Washington in the hopes that politicians would take action to help. Amid all the images of bread lines and field workers, one stood out; Migrant Mother showed a woman holding her baby, two other children clinging to her. That woman wasn’t named but she was Florence Owens Thompson. The power of the image was evident; within weeks of its publication money began to flow to the migrant camps to help the destitute workers. Marisa Silver has taken that iconic photo and reimagined the lives of the woman and her children, as well as the photographer.

In this work of fiction, Silver has named the migrant mother Mary Coin, and the photographer is now called Vera Dare. But a little research will show that much of the story told in the novel closely parallels that of the real women involved. Still, Silver embellishes and adds another dimension with an imagined descendant of the owner of a farm at which Mary Coin toiled; Walker Dodge is a professor of cultural history who digs into his family’s history after finding some papers in his late father’s desk.

The focus of the work, however, is on the two women. Mary is portrayed as a woman with an inner strength and determination to care for her children. She expects little from life, and frequently gets less, but she is never broken. Like Mary, Vera must deal with the loss of her father at a young age, and the toll that takes on her own mother. Her own early bout with polio has left her with a pronounced limp and she is determined to overcome the disability – both real and perceived. Both women suffer from having been “left” by their fathers early in life, and this loss contributes to the decisions they make concerning their own children when they become mothers.

The prose is beautifully simple, the images powerful, and the story poignant and haunting. So why four stars instead of five? I couldn’t get over the fact that Silver borrowed so completely from the lives of these two very real women, yet changed their names and called it fiction. Yes, I understand that she could not have possibly been privy to their inner thoughts, and for that reason alone had to craft this as a novel rather than a biography. There are plenty of works of historical fiction based on real people that use the real names. So why change their names? Why put that iconic photo on the cover and still hide the real women behind different identities? Also, I did not think Walker Dodge’s story was sufficiently explored. He starts the book, and then disappears for most of the rest, returning in the last quarter to tie up some loose ends. His contribution to the total story is important; he deserved an expanded role.
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LibraryThing member susiesharp
Mary Coin by Marisa Silver narrated by, Eva Kaminsky, Alison Fraser, Mark Sisler

When I first heard of this book I thought it was going to be right up my alley because I have always loved old photographs and we all know this amazing photograph and I love reading about the 30’s , but it turned out a bit more boring than I thought it would be, I was expecting a deeper story of these two very different women and what their lives were like and it would have been a better book if it had only been about the 2 women; I did not understand the inclusion of Walker Dodge’s storyline until the very end of the book and by then I didn’t really care about him or his story. I felt this storyline took away from getting to know more about Vera. Or maybe we needed less Vera and more about Mary Coin and her family. Not sure something was just off with the way these stories flowed together.

There are parts I liked, I think Mary Coin was a much more interesting character than Vera, who was so self centered, well maybe I should say career orientated, when she is an old woman and she is taking pictures of her son and he looks at her and says it’s too late for that now mom which was a huge ah-ha moment into her life because we don’t get to actually see much of her life in between taking the photo and when she is elderly. I felt we didn’t really get to know Vera as much as we should have and more about the impact of this photo on her life we get a skimming of information about Vera’s life but not very in depth. Mary Coin however we learn about her life and how it was tough but her children turned out well even though she was still the woman in that picture with the heartbreak in her eyes. I wish this had been more, a meatier story, maybe, it just felt like we skimmed the surface of these women and wish there had been more about them and more about the time. Most books about the depression and this time in history it is like the time period is a character and I didn’t get that in this book.

I did enjoy these three new to me narrators Eva Kaminsky, Alison Fraser, Mark Sisler, they all did a good job with their respective characters the women had to sound young and aged and both pulled it off successfully, Mark has a nice voice he reminded me a bit of Kirby Heybourne I enjoyed his pacing and timbre of his voice. I would listen to any/all of these narrators again.

Alright I didn’t hate this book there are parts I liked but wished for a meatier story. Maybe if Walker’s story hadn’t felt so separate from the others if the connections had been made sooner maybe I would have liked his story more. This isn’t a bad book but don’t expect an epic story about woman during the depression because you won’t get it. Not bad just not as good as I was expecting. I liked Mary’s story and if the book had concentrated on her I think it would have been better.

3 Stars

I received this book from the Audiobookjukebox and Penguin Audio for a fair and honest review.
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LibraryThing member NeedMoreShelves
I picked this novel up on a whim at the library because I've always found the photo featured on the front cover (Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange) to be such an arresting image. The idea of telling the story behind that photo was quite interesting to me, and I'm happy to say the novel was a compelling read. I loved the writing, each of the three main characters was fascinating, and the look at life during the 1930s was completely engrossing. Especially poignant to me was the author's decision to make each of the mothers in the book face difficult choices for her children, and the results of both of their choices. This is a really excellent novel, and I'd love to read more of this author's work.… (more)
LibraryThing member MaggieFlo
This historical fiction has three story lines which converge at different points to create a wonderful story of struggle, poverty, survival, humanity during the Great Depression of the 1930s
Mary Coin is the wife of migrant worker Toby coin in the dirty thirties in California. They have 6 children when Toby dies of pneumonia.
Walker Dodge is a modern day social history professor in California who likes to unearth personal stories by searching through archives, garage sales and libraries. His family owned fruit orchards near Porter, California.
Vera Dare is a photographer hired by the federal government to take photographs of migrant workers so that their plight during the depression can be captured and aid provided for their survival.
The story is a fictionalized account of photographer Dorothea Lange’s photograph of migrant worker Florence Owens Thompson. The photo became the face of poverty and struggle of migrant workers and made Lange famous.
The writing is so well done, the characters so well developed, the emotions and thoughts so well described that this story although sad, was a pleasure to read.
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LibraryThing member viviennestrauss
Wow! What a book. I, like many I am sure have "stopped seeing" the famous photo by Lange. A great novel and loved the connections between the characters. Makes you think about the past in a different sort of way.
LibraryThing member FAR2MANYBOOKS
A novel beautifully weaving imagination with historical fact.

I would definitely recommend this book as it illustrates the tremendous strength and courage of two exceptional women:

-A re-imagination of the iconic subject of the photograph of a migrant mother during the Great Depression and her seven children.

-The photographer as a trailblazer in photographic documenting, her strength, despite a physical handicap (polio), and her empathy of the less fortunate despite her more privileged background.
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