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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