FOR THE FOLLOW-UP to her award-winning novel The God of War, Marisa Silver draws her inspiration from Dorothea Lange’s famous 1936 photograph “Migrant Mother,” which became a symbol of the terrible hardships suffered by the American people during the Great Depression. Stretching the very boundaries of realism and historical fiction, Silver allows fact to merge with fiction in her third novel, offering a thorough and cleverly imagined reconstruction of the lives of photographer and subject; a third main character (a contemporary of ours) acts as a messenger, carrying their stories to the present day. Though the tale spans almost a century and slides backwards and forwards between past and present times, it moves smoothly as readers are guided along by the three main characters: Vera Dare, a polio-crippled photographer who takes society portraits before accepting a government commission to document the effects of the Great Depression; Mary Coin, the migrant mother of seven children who becomes the subject of Dare’s most unforgettable photograph; and Walker Dodge, a social historian and professor, who traces their stories in order to unravel a personal, family secret.
Silver’s novel — a New York Times and Los Angeles Times bestseller — offers captivating exposition on photography, while raising a number of worthy questions about the related subject of truth and authenticity in art. Readers encounter, for instance, a strange death photo of Mary’s Cherokee grandfather in which a gun has been placed in his arms post-mortem. They also witness the work of a photographer who offers people money in exchange for their turn among “authentic” props such as Native American costumes or a jacket with bullet holes — from Appomattox, he swears. And finally, not long after photographing Mary Coin, Vera Dare recognizes that this image “[has] become […] both more and less than the image she had taken that day.”
While the moment shared by photographer and subject serves as the axis for the story presented in Silver’s book, the novel stretches far beyond this. Mary Coin offers a stunning portrait of the Great Depression — one that extends outward beyond the confines of history and reality to reach us in the present day. In fact, the story opens in the present day, as Walker Dodge drives through the streets of his childhood in Porter, California towards his dying father. It then reaches back to Mary Coin in the times of the Great Depression, a time when people stood in long breadlines and toiled in the fields for almost no pay, a time when nothing, the characters observe, except the air that they breathe — and words, as Mary’s daughter Ellie poignantly observes — are free. Time dances between past and present, while descriptions of births and deaths, patterns of children and parents heighten Mary’s observation that “it seemed […] that time did not so much progress as circle back on itself.”
As the story goes back and forth between Mary and Vera, between voyeur and subject, so too do we. Photography and art allow us, however, like Vera, to recognize “the uniqueness of [our] vision […] at once obvious and astonishing.” Mary’s penetrating gaze — the first thing that readers encounter in the central character and perhaps the lasting impression that viewers take away from Lange’s photograph — becomes a symbol of this ability to see rather than to look, but also, as her eyes are averted in the photograph, reminds us that we not only look, but are seen. In this, Silver investigates our life-long occupation as both voyeur and subject — observing and being observed, so that Silver’s book is not only about how we look at others, but about how we are looked at and how we see ourselves.
The exploration of these ideas could easily grow into lofty and unwieldy philosophical meditations, but Silver maintains control by grounding the philosophical with realistic characters and carefully crafted detail. A good portion of the book’s opening is devoted to the subjects of desire and sexuality, and the characters suffer throughout the story sufficiently — facing unemployment, hunger, illness, homelessness, humiliation, failed relationships, death, and in general, stunning loss — as if to say: "See how human they are." In this way the book succeeds, because there is no way to miss the humanity of its characters, nor does it ever seem exaggerated. Through their vision, Silver creates an engaging dialogue that offers up good and interesting questions, even if it does not — cannot — always answer them. In this way, Silver keeps up with the best of literature.
However, Mary Coin is not without its complications. First, there are difficulties in identifying Silver’s work as realism. The same smart dialogue that Silver sets up, which raises questions about truth and reality, also causes us to grow self-conscious as readers: Is this book fiction or not? The packaging of the book — a dust jacket prominently featuring Dorothea Lange’s photograph of Florence Owens Thompson, an epigraph in which Henry David Thoreau states “We crave only reality” — exacerbates this uneasy feeling. But this is a novel, not a biography, and these aspects might result in the desire not for reality, but rather, only for fiction inspired by reality. This reader removed the dust jacket and forged ahead.
In fact, the most striking parts of the reading experience may be the places where the specter of the photograph falls away for a moment — where, through Silver’s prose, we are allowed to see rather than look — and to see, specifically, a different story than the one that we had seen when confronted with Lange’s well known image. Mary Coin is beautifully rendered and not overly decorated. In this, it achieves the almost magical quality that makes the reader forget they are reading a work of fiction and draws them closer. This quality is absent, however, in the scenes that feature Walker Dodge, and the secret that he uncovers at the story’s conclusion fails to pack a punch. Walker represents someone who is paying attention to history, who cares. Still, his character comes across as an afterthought — a framing device disguised as character to tether the stories of the other characters to the present day. We, as readers — and, more simply, as humans — are Walker Dodge, looking, sifting through the past, unraveling stories. He reminds us of this when he tells us “his great-grandfather and his grandfather, and even George […] were inadvertent historians.” If not for this single observation, did we need his accompaniment? Could we have reached this conclusion ourselves?
Furthermore, the women — who meet only once at the time that Dare photographs Coin — seem to be connected in a way that even blood relations are not, and their connection is so dynamic, so exquisitely rendered that the story would surely have succeeded even if all else fell away. Intimate observations about their desires and the gut-wrenching chronicles of their relationships, which drop like the last leaves of a dying tree, allow us to feel connected, too. While the portraiture of Depression living is stunning, the most devastating parts of the story may not be Mary or Vera’s physical struggles, but rather the changes that take place within them as they go on living. Silver accomplishes this without being dramatic or too sentimental, and it is this dose of reality that gives the book its real strength. Mary Coin is truly about who these two women are — who they were, who they became, who they are even now after death. “You’ll know who you are when you start losing things,” Mary’s mother warns her. But in the closing scenes, Mary admits again that she does not know who she is. Paired with the repetition of secrecies and mysteries between parents and children that recurs throughout, Silver’s book beckons the question: Can we ever really know each other — or ourselves?
In fact, the main characters often seem to be trapped in various states of unknowing. Walker does not really know about his father or his past. He does not really know his children. He sifts through his father’s belongings and realizes that what he “remembers” of his grandfather’s death is not necessarily what he experienced but what was told to him. He describes the discrepancies in accounts of Mary’s life. What, then, of memory? What, then, of truth? He “feels certain that he will not discover a way to penetrate beneath the charm of a stiffly posed marriage portrait to find the character of a particular place and its people, to unearth the human experience of history.” Vera acknowledges at the end, too, that she does not know her own family. Likewise, Mary still does not know what is behind her son James’s eyes. Worse still, we bear witness to her devastating admission that she still does not know herself. Truth becomes a trick, a mirage, something that one thinks they possess only to find that they cannot ever quite reach it. “[W]e expect a photograph to tell us the truth”, says an unnamed character. But do they? Can they? Mary and Vera ask with us. And Silver answers. A photograph may not always tell us the truth about history. After all, how could the truth be captured in a single frame, in a finite moment of time, a single point of view? Literature, too, Silver seems to be saying, may not always tell us the truth about history, but it will always tell us some truth about ourselves.
Je Banach is a member of the Residential Faculty in Fiction at the Yale Writers’ Conference.