Novels are like big stretchy bags, so willing and able to hold a multitude of voices. There’s a fancy name for this—heteroglossia, from the Russian linguist Mikhail Bakhtin, who believed the power of the novel originates in the gathering of and the conflict between the different voices.
Yet as the voices accumulate and the cacophony grows loud, the difficulties of writing a compelling story are compounded. Multiple central characters get feisty, competing with one another for time and attention. Suddenly one character dominates and wins over reader’s hearts. Then it becomes a matter of racing—or worse, skimming—through the other plot lines to get back to the favored one. And if you add to the explosive mix a central character who happens to be an iconic figure, symbolizing an entire era, well, a novel is hard enough to write, and now this?
Marisa Silver in her new novel, Mary Coin, takes all this on, and the result is a compelling, hard-to-put down story. As the cover of the novel suggests, the story emanates from the photograph, “Migrant Mother,” taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936 at a pea-pickers’ camp in Nipomo, California. The woman in the photo is Florence Owens Thompson, who has been fictionalized by Silver and renamed Mary Coin. Lange, too, is reimagined and renamed Vera Dare. And a third story line involves Walker Dodge, a social historian who, upon cleaning out his deceased father’s house, finds the iconic photo tucked away in one of his grandfather’s books and begins to wonder why—why is it there?
The photograph is at the center of this book, its beating heart, pulsing out its different plot lines and themes. What is the responsibility of the artist to her subject? When does art become exploitation? How should history be made? Interpreted? At the same time, Silver is a savvy, smart storyteller who has imagined far beyond the borders of the photograph.
We go back to 1920, to Tahlequah, Oklahoma, to Mary as a smart, sassy girl, a girl with a “sultry drag to her gait, as if she were waiting for someone to step into her path and make her change direction.” She’s stuck at home because her mother yanked her out of school because, as far as she was concerned, “Mary knew nothing of any real use.”
Her eye trained on a local farm boy, Mary soon is married and pregnant. On her wedding day, her mother tells her, “You’ll know who you are when you start losing things.” Indeed, Mary begins losing things—her husband dies of tuberculosis and Mary must fend for herself and her six children. It’s the 1930s in Depression-gripped America, and Mary moves from farm to farm, picking whatever needs to be picked, moving on when the job is no longer. Until she can’t move any longer because there is no work and the radiator of her Hudson busts, and her seventh child is sick, glassy-eyed and feverish, and she and her brood are living off birds and “whatever winter produce fell off trucks.”
This is where Vera finds her, on the side of the road in Central California. But before the intersection of these story lines, Vera is given a past, flaws, and a conflict-ridden life. At an early age, she has polio, which leaves her with a deformed leg, and, she discovers, a unique view of things. As a young woman, she earns a living by photographing society women in San Francisco, which is where she meets her husband, who is an artist. Two boys later, she is stuck—stuck in motherhood, her career flagging, married to a philanderer. As the Depression sinks its claws into everything and everyone, Vera and her husband sell their house, send their children to live with a woman in Oakland, and try to make money. The unemployed languish on the streets. One day Vera decides she must photograph them. “What right did she have to take photographs of strangers? But she knew these faces… These people had been made to feel inadequate, abnormal. Their lives were disfigured by circumstance.”
The picture of Mary Coin is taken; the picture becomes famous, iconic. At some point, Mary sends Vera a letter, demanding she stop printing it in magazines. At the end of her life, Vera writes back. But Vera, of course, can’t stop the printing of the photo, so it haunts. Just as it continues to haunt us. Just as Silver’s new novel with linger and haunt, attached as it is to the famous photo, wonderfully deepens the story behind the making of history.