Mary Coin by Marisa Silver

“Maybe I can get the little ones to turn around,” the lady said. “That’s right. Just turn right around so you’re not looking at me. One of you on each side of your mama. Just like that.”
Della and James did as they were told and faced away from the camera. James leaned into Mary’s shoulder to let her know he was there. Her protector. Her silent guardian. The bay made small mewling sounds. Mary put her hand to her chin and worried the tiny scar that remained from when her mother had held four quarters in her hand and cut her across the jaw. She looked away.
The woman took a photograph. “Thank you,” she said. “I’ve got what I need.” She turned and limped back to her car. (p. 168)
In her novel, Mary Coin, Marisa Silver has re-imagined the story of the Migrant Mother. She has done it brilliantly through her creation of Mary, the mother of seven children determined to survive; Vera, the photographer who suffers her own difficulties with a leg that polio has left sagging and limp as well as a husband who seeks the pleasure of other women;  Wallace, the man who examines history both in what he teaches in his classes and what he seeks in his own life. Their stories are interwoven in a warp and woof which reminds us that we aren’t so very different from these people who lived through the Great Depression of the 1930’s. We ask the same questions, of ourselves and others. We suffer in similar ways.

She readied her camera, trying to find a good angle. Her awkwardness and effort sundered any idea she had about trying to be inconspicuous. Adrenaline made her hands shake. Someone bumped into her from behind, and she turned, half expecting to be warned off and told to go back where she came from. 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 circumstance. She had to take their pictures because what she saw, what she saw, marked her as much as 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. (p. 140)

Here is a photograph of Dorothea Lange, the woman hired by the Farm Security Administration  to record the Great Depression. See more of Dorthea Lange’s work here.

19 thoughts on “Mary Coin by Marisa Silver”

  1. I can see how it would qualify as a reread book; somehow, the writing reminds me a bit of Ann Patchett: so lovely, so heartrendng, so honest. Thanks for visiting me!


  2. Jennifer,I know what you mean. As I looked for more information about the photographer (Dorothea Lange) I was surprised Marisa gave her very-true-to-life character the name of Vera. Perhaps she felt she would cross the lines of fiction and nonfiction by keeping the real names? Not sure, but it didn't keep me from enjoying the book. And no, it wasn't just you. I wondered the same thing.


  3. A friend from book club loved this one! We have a 'paperback only' rule, but I'm sure she will recommend it when the paperback is released.


  4. That picture is so powerful. The woman has a real beauty in her face, too. I am interested in this book but I'd aslo like to know more about the real story of the Migrant Mother.


  5. Beautiful, beautiful, beautiful — referring to your site! I happened upon it one day and have to admit that selfishly I have returned to it for ideas – both in terms of books and structure/layout.

    I am particularly drawn to the black and white photographs. Your most recent review of Mary Coin by Marisa Silver looks interesting. I am hoping to take a look at it soon – so your review was effective! It persuaded me to go and find it.

    I'll keep returning to your site for ideas and inspiration. (I'm a newbie to blogging but not to reading or appreciating fine work!) Sorry…realized I was being too wordy compared to other comments…will work on editing!


    JKS at Three Books On The Shelf


  6. I'm really interested in Dorothea Lange – she was an amazing photographer but not a nice stepmother. One day I might write about her. The novel sounds fascinating, too. We have it so easy, really, when you consider what our ancestors went through with the Depression. What courage they must have had!


  7. I was thinking of recommending this to my mother's book club…not only is the writing excellent, but the themes are interesting to me. I'd love to hear more of their stories about how they experienced the Depression; many of them were born in the early 1930's. It would be a great book for any club to discuss. (We have the same paperback rule! 😉


  8. It hadn't been brought to my attention until a dear friend of mine told me about it. I haven't seen it any where in the blog-o-sphere, so I'm glad I could be one of those to put it out there. Of course, from the comments I can see that many others have read it before I did!


  9. I thought the same thing: she has so much beauty, and she couldn't even keep herself terribly clean. I guess our character shows through 'all the dirt'. I'd also like to know the real story of her, although I suppose all we can do at this point is make a good guess.


  10. Thank you for your sweet affirmation of my blog; it's always a work in progress for us bloggers to achieve what we want, I think! No comment is too wordy, conversation is one of the best parts of blogging!


  11. Victoria, you always have such good background knowledge on literature! I had no idea Dorothea Lange was a poor step-mother. I would have thought the fact that her father left her family when she was a child, and the fact that she suffered from polio, would have made her a bit more compassionate. It's funny how we handle our adversities. Some of us become more gentle, others become more bitter…


  12. Beautiful writing and interesting themes? I'm convinced! I recognized Lange's photo when this book arrived at work, but I didn't take time to read the blub on the jacket. Thank you, dear friend, for guiding me to, what sounds like, an amazing novel.


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