By Elaine Burns
This is the famous ‘Migrant Mother’ portrait, taken by photographer Dorthea Lange during the Great Depression. The woman, a 32 year-old mother of ten, is Florence Owen Thompson. Lange found her at the edge of a frozen pea field in California, hungry and tired. Her family had been moving for years from field to field to pick crops, the only work they could find.
This portrait found fame at the time, as it truly represented the plight of the migrant workers and helped others in better circumstances to aid them. It is considered the epitome of Depression-era photographs.
Marisa Silver, in her novel Mary Coin, creates a entirely absorbing novel about the era, the photo, and the woman in it. By using a fictional character, Silver is able to take some literary licence with the story. However, nothing strays much from the truth.
Mary Coin is a half-Cherokee young girl who learns from her own mother how to survive on barely nothing after her husband deserts the family. Mary falls in love and for a few years has a happy marriage and successful farm with her husband. Then the dust bowl hits and they hit the road trying to make a living. Her husband dies, and Mary continues migrating with her seven children to try to make ends meet. She is always finding some way to keep her children with her and fed. By the age of 32 she is drawn, tired and looking like a woman several decades older.
All of this, except the number of children, is also the story of Florence.
Vera Dare is a struggling portrait photographer who suffered polio as a child and walks with a decided limp. She marries a ‘larger than life’ painter and they have some success and two sons. After a number of years Dare has had enough of the ‘larger than life’ painter and the couple divorces. Anxious to make money to provide for her sons, Dare takes a job with the US Department of Agriculture and is assigned to take pictures depicting the plight of the migrant workers in California. One day, while viewing the devastation of the early frost on the pea crop, she comes across a tent, well a canvas lean-to, in which sits a mother, her new baby which is very ill, and her six other children. Her man has walked the couple’s car wheels into town to get them fixed so they can move on. Dare asks to take the woman’s picture and Mary and her children seem not to care either way. Dare takes a couple of frames and leaves without asking the woman’s name. She does however, note that she is 32.
This is in fact the identical story of the real life photographer Dorthea Lange.
The novel goes on to show how both Mary and Vera strive to survive, with Vera’s career taking off after the portrait, for which she was not paid.
Mary on the other hand must struggle with a very painful decision, one which plagues her for the rest of her life.
Both women are chronicled to the end of their lives. We get to see their struggles and triumphs.
Interwoven into this very close to true story is the story of Walker Dodge, a professor who is more comfortable in academia than in real life. He has a very troubled and distant relationship with his father, and when his father dies Walker must settle the estate and that leads him into finding family mementos. This journey allows him to uncover a family secret that he must unravel.
Mary Coin is one of the best books we have read this year. It is utterly spellbinding and compels you to research the real photographer and subject. Silver’s literary style is superb.
We all had difficulty with the fact that the photographer, both real and fictional, seemed to have taken no notice of the woman and her very real destitution. While we understood that there was no money available to the photographer, we all felt she should have done something to help. Florence’s identity was not discovered until 1972, nearly 40 years later.
In fact, having seen the picture, the Department of Agriculture did send relief to that area but Mary/Florence had left.
This is a must read. This is a lovely read. This is a read that will not let Mary/Florence’s story rest. This was probably Silver’s goal after all.
The Monday Night Book Club will be meeting in July to choose books for the coming year. Stay tuned for our choices. It has been great having you with us.
Did you know that this summer FOML is sponsoring the Meaford Literary Champion Program. Look for lawn signs that declare ‘A Champion Reader Lives Here’.
We will also participate in the Fresh Picks Program at the Meaford Farmers Market. This program allows various Meafordites to share their favourite books with Market attendees