"Mary Coin" by Marisa Silver is Pure Gold

You’re probably familiar with the Dorothea Lange photograph Migrant Mother, the 1936 portrait of a woman gazing off into the distance flanked by her two kids.  This iconic image has come to represent the hardship and poverty of those who came to California during the Dust Bowl years. Marisa Silver’s latest book Mary Coin is a remarkable historical novel that re-imagines the lives of the famous photographer and the mysterious woman she captured on film. 

There are three main characters in this book.  Mary Coin from Oklahoma marries young then loses her husband. She endures bone-breaking migrant labor as she strives to care for her seven children.  Vera Dare, a pseudonym for Lange, is from a middle-class family yet lives as an outcast, trying to succeed in a male-dominated profession. Walker Dodge, a present-day history professor, enjoys an affluent lifestyle. Divorced, and estranged from his teenage daughter, he struggles in his attempts to solve his own family mystery.

Told through alternating chapters, we follow their separate lives leading up to the chance encounter between Mary and Vera.  The photograph that results alters their lives in different ways, yet forever links them together.  The interplay between the past and present is cleverly brought together by the chapters detailing the life of Walker Dodge. 

I really enjoyed reading Mary Coin.  Parts are heart-wrenchingly sad, but ultimately it is an uplifting and life-affirming book.  Even though the three characters each have their own personal difficulties, there’s a thread of humanity weaving its way throughout the book.  A thread that connects the reader with the characters, and connects the dissimilar characters with each other.

Marisa Silver has written a powerful and haunting book that is as captivating as the famous photograph upon which it is based.  A great pick for Book Clubs!


For those interested in learning more about Dorothea Lange's life and photography, take a look at Dorothea Lange: The Heart and Mind of a Photographer.  This over-sized book includes 260 stunning black-and-white photographs owned by the Oakland Museum.  Migrant Mother is just one of many images documenting the California Dust Bowl years. Lange also photographed Japanese-Americans interned in camps during WWII, and in later years traveled throughout Asia and Africa where she continued creating amazing photographs.

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