I hadn’t heard of the book Mary Coin or the author Marisa Silver. I met someone who works for one of the big publishers.  I told her what books I like, including a recent read — The Orchardist by Amanda Coplin — a quiet book about quiet lives in a remote part of Washington state.  Mary Coin, a quiet, skillfully written book, takes us to California by way of Oklahoma.

The book alternates between the lives of three different people.  First, we follow Walker, a present day middle-aged academic, who is sort of a socio-historian. He goes to small towns and puts together individual histories by combing through attics, old ledgers, photo albums, old local newspapers, etc. He has neglected his own family and, recently divorced, is now dealing with his teenaged children and his dying father.

The other two stories take place mostly in the 1920’s and 1930’s. One follows title character, Mary Coin, who grows up in a one-room sod house in a small town in Oklahoma. Insects live in the dirt walls of the house and Mary feels “as trapped as that cricket, stuck in this house filled with the sweet smell of rotting earth.”  She marries young and she and her husband end up in California looking for work in the forests and fields.

The third story follows Vera Dare, whose life is based on that of real-life photographer Dorothea Lange. She lives in San Francisco where she has a photography studio specializing in debutantes and high- society portraits. The Great Depression takes Vera out of her studio — she is hired by the Farm Security Administration to photograph the poor, particularly farm workers.

Walker talks about his work and the difference between looking and seeing: “This unimportant image or piece of information that no one cares about? Well, there is a story here, too, and I’m going to find out what it is.”  Seeing is not just a glance.   It is looking past surfaces and using one’s imagination.

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange

Migrant Mother by Dorothea Lange

That is exactly what Marisa Silver is doing in this book. Silver’s jumping off point is Lange’s 1936 photograph, Migrant Mother.   Silver has gone past looking and is reimagining the lives of ordinary people. We see the characters through life and  death and through love and loss. We see the loneliness and hardships of their lives, whether poor or privileged.

A lesser known photo of Florence Owens Thompson and four of her seven children

The role of photography is an underlying theme throughout the book.   In an interview, Silver said that Migrant Mother “became an inadvertent icon and made its way down through the generations in all sorts of forms – as an exhibit in museums, as a document in textbooks, even as a U.S. postage stamp. The life of the original object was interpreted and reinterpreted, and, as a piece of history, it adopted meanings and values that were different from those in play at the moment of its making.”  The real subject of the photograph,  Florence Owens Thompson, did not reveal her identity until late in her life when she was very ill and needed money for health care.

The book allows us to contemplate how photographs capture a single moment and how we relate to that moment. It also allows to think about how photography has changed.  Silver says, “Photography is an interesting form because it is one that is practiced not only by artists, but by everyone. We are a planet of image-makers. Instamatic… instagram, the message is that life can be captured and fixed in an instant.”  Walker, the character, wonders what will happen now that digital photography means there will “be no dusty albums hidden in attics for someone like him to discover.”  It is an unanswered question “but every age deserves its fashion and its forms, and no one can control what survives.”

Each of the three strands of the story was interesting on its own. It was a beautiful read.  I wanted to know more about the characters and I was driven by the mystery of how their lives would intersect.

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