Mary Coin (Silver)

Mary Coin
Marisa Silver, 2013
Blue Rider Press
336 pp.
ISBN-13: 9780399160707

In her first novel since The God of War, the critically acclaimed author Marisa Silver takes Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” photograph as inspiration for a breathtaking reinvention—a story of two women, one famous and one forgotten, and of the remarkable legacy of their chance encounter.

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.

Three vibrant characters anchor the narrative of Mary Coin. Mary, the migrant mother herself, who emerges as a woman with deep reserves of courage and nerve, with private passions and carefully-guarded secrets. Vera Dare, the photographer wrestling with creative ambition who makes the choice to leave her children in order to pursue her work. And Walker Dodge, a present-day professor of cultural history, who discovers a family mystery embedded in the picture.

Writing in luminous, exquisitely rendered prose, Silver creates an extraordinary tale from a brief moment in history, and reminds us that although a great photograph can capture the essence of a moment, it only scratches the surface of a life. (From the publisher.)

Author Bio
Birth—April 23, 1960
Where—Shaker Heights, Ohio, USA
Education—Harvard University
Currently—Los Angeles, California

Marisa Silver is an American author, screenwriter and film director. She is the daughter of Raphael Silver, a film director and producer, and Joan Micklin Silver, a director.

Marisa Silver directed her first film, Old Enough, while she studied at Harvard University. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1984, when Silver was 23. Silver went on to direct three more feature films—Permanent Record (1988) with Keanu Reeves, Vital Signs (1990) and He Said, She Said (1991) with Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth Perkins (co-directed with Ken Kwapis, her now husband).

After making her career in Hollywood, she switched her profession and entered graduate school to become a short story writer. Her first short story appeared in The New Yorker magazine in 2000 and subsequently several more stories have been published there.

Silver published the short-story collection Babe in Paradise in 2001. That collection was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. A story from the collection was included in The Best American Short Stories 2000. In 2005, she published her first novel, No Direction Home. Two more novels followed: The God of War in 2008 and Mary Coin in 2013.

She and Kwapis reside in Los Angeles with their two sons. (From Wikipedia.)

Book Reviews
Silver never rushes her story. Instead, she takes her time, setting down the particulars of her characters with palpable care….Silver's focus on the discretely biographical [produces] some truly lovely lines and deeply moving scenes…I read Mary Coin in a day—eager to know who this 32-year-old migrant mother was and willing to imagine how it must have felt to be known for all time for an instant in time, to be invaded by conjecture of both the casual and novelistic sort. A photograph is a single snap. In Mary Coin, Silver suggests all that echoes after that.
Beth Kephart - Chicago Tribune

Special recognition therefore goes to Marisa Silver, whose new novel, Mary Coin, fictionalizes the circumstances of the most famous image of the Depression...the book is a skillful, delicate apprehension of that photograph and its moment in history....[Silver is] a fine, delicate stylist, with an aphoristic style that fills even simple moments with meaning.
USA Today

Silver’s provocative new novel [is] a fictionalized, multigenerational account of [Dorothea] Lange’s life and the life of her migrant farmworker subject. Silver writes beautifully and has meticulously researched her historical details, making for an informative, addictive book whose Depression-era narrative feels particularly relevant in today’s recessionary times.

Marisa Silver’s transfixing new novel...deftly sprinkles historical fact into her fictional narrative...a raw and emotional tale that leaves readers with a lingering question: Do photographs illuminate or blur the truth?
O Magazine

Silver is an evocative, precise writer...[she] smoothly integrates ephemeral period details...[Dorothea] Lange's photograph and the world it conjures up is inherently melodramatic. But Silver's writing isn't: she's restrained and smart. Throughout her novel, Silver tackles big questions about the morality of art and, in particular, the exploitation of subjects in photography.
Maureen Corrigan - NPR

Mary Coin is the fictionalized story of [the “Migrant Mother” photograph], with Mary standing in for the actual subject, Florence Owens Thompson, and Vera Dare standing in for Dorothea Lange....a story ready and waiting for a fictionalized treatment. And Marisa Silver does it full, glorious justice. The story is compelling and honest, never sentimentalized or made easy, the writing exquisite in its luminous clarity. Silver accomplishes much in this work, including giving a human face and story to overwhelming disaster, just as the original photograph did....Silver’s story is artful in a way that life often is not, carrying the story of one family through several generations....This novel is simply not to be missed. It is memorable.
Historical Novels Review

(Starred review.) Three characters whose lives span 90 years form the core of Silver's gorgeous third novel (after The God of War). Social historian Walker Dodge...discovers a familial link to a famous photograph. Here, a real-life photo taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936 becomes a fictional photo taken by Vera Dare of Mary Coin. Silver fills in the untold story behind Lange's photo by revealing Vera and Mary's lives in vivid detail.... Silver has managed the difficult task of fleshing out history without glossing over its ugly truths. With writing that is sensual and rich, she shines a light on the parts of personal history not shared and stops time without destroying the moment.
Publishers Weekly

(Starred review.) [S]uperb.... The titular character is a reimagining of this Native American mother of seven, with the memorable face that came to symbolize American poverty. Mary, along with Vera Dare, a strong-minded photographer and polio survivor who is forced to abandon her own children, and Walker Dodge, a modern-day history professor with a surprising link to the celebrated photograph, are the mesmerizing novel's three central characters.... Silver has crafted a highly imaginative story that grabs the reader and won't let go. —Lisa Block, Atlanta, GA
Library Journal

Inspired by Migrant Mother, the iconic Depression-era photograph snapped by Dorothea Lange in 1936, Silver reimagines the lives of both the photographer and the subject....this dual portrait investigates the depths of the human spirit, exposing the inner reserves of will and desire hidden in both women....The luminously written, heart-wrenching—yet never maudlin—plot moves back and forth through time, as history professor Walker Dodge unpeels the layers of the photograph’s hidden truths.

The fictionalized lives of photographer Dorothea Lange and the Native American farm worker behind her famous Depression-era portrait "Migrant Mother." ... When she photographs Mary, Vera has no idea the image will take on a life of its own. Walker's tacked-on connection to the photograph seems a calculated attempt to add sexual intrigue to what is otherwise a disappointingly plodding account that sheds no new light on either the photographer or her subject.
Kirkus Reviews

Discussion Questions
1. Were you familiar with Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother photograph before reading Mary Coin? If so, what assumptions did you bring to your reading experiences about the photograph? The photographer?

2. When readers are first introduced to Mary, she is in the midst of her adolescence. How would you characterize her as a teenager? Do these personality traits stick with her throughout the novel? How does her grandfather’s legacy as the “Cherokee Murderer” impact her?

3. After being photographed in the Indian princess garb, Mary remarks that “she felt the queer nature of her power, how it made her feel strong and diminished all at once.” (46) How is this sentiment echoed throughout the novel? Relate this statement to Vera’s perspective of power behind the camera.

4. On page 6, Walker asserts that he tells his children “all his foundational stories, no matter howhumiliating.”  When considering his relationship with his own father, why does Walker approachparenting in this way? Is it  effective? Explore other ways that his childhood has influenced his personal and work-related decisions in adulthood.

5. Mary and Vera both contend with economic hardships throughout the course of the novel, eventually becoming the breadwinners for their families. How do these experiences affect their self-image? Their relationships with their children? Their spouses?

6. The words “For sure, you’ll be lame so” echo in Vera’s mind throughout the novel, yet on page 119 she also notes that her limp is one of her greatest advantages. How does photography help her overcome her self-consciousness?

7. Vera initially views photography solely as an occupation, while Everett is an “artist.” How does her conception of her career change over the course of the novel? Does she ever see herself as an artist? Discuss her ambitions in relation to the expected gender roles of the time.

8. Compare the marital history of Mary and Vera. Are their marriages borne out of love? Necessity? What do they learn from their failed marriages? How do they assert independence in their relationships?

9. On page 224, Walker states that “his image of his grandfather must be a construct derived from largely from photographs” rather than his own recollections. What does this imply about the influence of objects and photographs on memory? Do photographs manipulate—or even create—memories? Relate to modern-day culture. Does our constant documentation via cell phone photography and social media manipulate memory?

10. Walker, Mary, and Vera all express guilt over how they have raised their children. Discuss their concerns and characterize their parenting styles. How do they interact with their children? What do they celebrate about parenthood? What do they regret?

11. When Mary travels to the Goodwill in Chapter 31, she realizes “how silly the idea of owning was in the end.” (272) Given this, why do you think she buys back all of her items? Explore this in connection with the culture of poverty that Mary was raised in.

12. On page 184, Vera admits that she is “embarrassed” by her most famous photograph. Why does she have that reaction? Is she ever comfortable with her fame?

13. The scene where the famous photograph is taken is described twice in the novel, once from Mary’s point of view, once from Vera’s. Discuss the differences in the way the two women experience this encounter. What are the ethical ramifications for both women?

14. When Mary visits the gallery in Chapter 36, she is looking at the photograph when she overhears someone say “You can see it all in her face.” Discuss the irony of this arrangement. What does this assert about the relationship between the viewer and the subject in art? About perception and truth?

15. Discuss the last line of the novel: “There is no erasure.” Why do you think the author chose to end Mary Coin on this note?
(Questions issued by the publisher. )

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