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Dorothea Lange's 'Migrant Mother' Inspires The Story Of 'Mary Coin'

I shied away from Marisa Silver's new novel because of its book jacket: a reproduction of Dorothea Lange's iconic Depression-era photograph called "Migrant Mother." You know it: the woman's strong face is worn and worried; her children lean protectively into her. Lange took the photo at a pea-pickers' camp in California in 1936; the name of the destitute mother of seven, who wasn't identified till the 1970s, is Florence Owens Thompson. The photo on Silver's book jacket is colorized.

I feared that Silver's novel might be "colorized," too, punching up its account of the meeting between Lange and Thompson and, in particular, sanctifying Thompson's maternal ordeal, to make the story appealing to women's book clubs across the land. But curiosity trumped cynicism, especially since Lange's photograph, even in this altered form, always commands attention. What I found is that, far from romanticizing the suffering of the Great Depression, Silver stares at it hard, square in the face, just as Lange must have done that March day in 1936 when, on assignment for the federal Farm Security Administration, she drove into the migrant workers camp, took six photos of Thompson and her children and then drove away.

Silver is an evocative, precise writer, and her story — really interlocking tales — takes readers deep into the callous realities of life during the Dirty '30s. To acknowledge the imaginative leeway that she does take — indeed, that all artists, even documentary photographers, take — Silver renames her famous subjects here: Dorothea Lange becomes photographer Vera Dare, and Florence Owens Thompson is the title character, Mary Coin. Both women, as they were in real life, are mothers; but Silver doesn't strain to make them sisters under the skin. Dare's background is immigrant, urban; she contracts polio as a child in the early years of the 20th century, and that handicap (as it would have been called then) sets her apart and makes her a sharp observer. As Lange did, Dare begins her photographic career taking pictures of society women in San Francisco; these are women who, with a smug glance at Dare's dress or the furniture in her studio, excel at making her "aware of what her life was and what it was not."

In Coin's world, such subtle class messages are unnecessary; everybody knows their place, and that place is at the bottom of the heap. She grows up in Oklahoma in a sod house whose walls "were alive with worms and centipedes and colonies of ants." Silver smoothly integrates ephemeral period details, like the fact that the 17-year-old Coin, in preparation for her wedding day, collects tin cans from the neighbors so that she can cut them into thin strips and wind her hair around them, making ringlets. But soon enough, Coin's husband dies of TB, and as the Depression worsens, we readers are taken into the desperation and meanness of the migrant worker hiring lines, where Coin stands for hours while her kids stay behind out of sight in her old car, a Hudson. Here's a quick description of one such hiring line:

Both women, as they were in real life, are mothers; but Silver doesn't strain to make them sisters under the skin.

"When she reached the front, the foreman looked her over, judged her wizened frame and her bone-thin arms, then pushed the air with his hand as if the wind he created would be enough to blow her away."

By the time of that momentous meeting with photographer Vera Dare, Coin and her kids are living off vegetables blighted by frost and any small birds that they catch and kill. According to historical sources, Florence Owens Thompson and her family — along with countless other Americans of the time — were subsisting on similar diets.

In touching on some of the images that give atmosphere to this story, I've made Mary Coin sound more melodramatic than it is; I can't avoid it: Lange's photograph and the world it conjures up is inherently melodramatic. But Silver's writing isn't: she's restrained and smart. Throughout her novel, Silver tackles big questions about the morality of art and, in particular, the exploitation of subjects in photography. Indeed, Silver herself "exploits" Lange's famous photo here for her own powerful ends. Sometimes artists have to be selfish in that way. To paraphrase one of the greatest and most selfish of them all, Pablo Picasso, artists are trying to create lies that tell the truth.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.