Recently, while PBS was airing the documentary The Dust Bowl by Ken Burns, I bought Mary Coin by Marisa Silver. I simply bought it because of the image on the cover which was in the film and which I had seen hundreds of times before – the photo of a worried, careworn woman with her children and baby, refugees from the 1930s Dust Bowl in the USA. That bony face, that might have been attractive once, the grimy children with their thick hair and backs to the camera, the bundle of rags on her lap that is her baby. The obvious hunger and hopelessness in her that have driven her beyond caring or embarrassment.
I always wondered how that photo came about. Who was that woman? This novel answers both questions – imagined answers, but even so pretty close to the truth. It is fiction, but the two main characters, the mother and her photographer, are based on the real people; Florence Owens Thompson, the “Migrant Mother” made so famous in the photo, and Dorothea Lange, the photographer, who became as famous as her subject.
As with many famous images, the photos of Florence Thompson are unforgettable and also puzzling.
For instance, the image of Sharbat Gula, the Afghani refugee girl with the striking green eyes, taken by Steve McCurry, the National Geographic photographer. Or the photo of Kim Phuc, fleeing her village in Vietnam after it was hit with napalm on June 8, 1972, taken by Nick Ut, who worked for Associated Press at the time. Or the photo by Stuart Franklin, of a man bravely facing tanks in Tiananmen Square, Beijing, China, on 5 June 1989. Or the Pulitzer Prize-winning photo, Raising the Flag on Iwo Jima, taken by Joe Rosenthal during the Battle of Iwo Jima on February 23, 1945.
You look at these, and wonder, what happened next? Did that man live? Did the child recover from her burns? Did Sharbat Gula stay beautiful? The photos changed people’s opinions. They indirectly led to changes in policy and legislation. They changed history. But did they also change the subjects, the people in the photos? Were they the making of the photographers?
Life in the Dust Bowl
In Mary Coin, the author explores this type of pivotal moment from multiple angles – what the photo did for the characters (inverted commas because I am referring to the fictional character), “Mary Coin”, “Vera Dare”, the photographer, and a professor who teaches history and media, “Walker Dodge”. It switches between the present day and the decades before.
Dare takes on an assignment to photograph migrant workers in the Dust Bowl who are suffering through the Depression.
As Ken Burns’ documentary points out, the Dust Bowl was a man-made ecological disaster. The Depression was man-made as well. Because of the Dust Bowl, farmers eventually gave up and moved to where they could get migrant work, like California, picking fruit or cotton. Then, when that work ran out, they made their way to the cities, where there was no work either, because of the Depression.
Silver keeps close to the facts of this story, since it is well documented. But that image, featured on the cover of the book, speaks for itself as well, almost like a narrative independent of the novel’s plot.
While on assignment she stops and photographs Mary Coin and her children in a labourers’ camp by the side of a road – and that becomes an important moment in the narrative, but not the most important one. The life story of Mary Coin before and after that moment is one of bare-bones love, desire, poverty, hardship and inner strength, even in the worst hardships. The descriptions of her and her sick husband, Toby, when he is dying, are chilling and at the same time bitter-sweet. But she has to go on, and there are the children to take care of.
“”So that’s how we’ll remember Corcoran,” Mary said, because it was important that a place stay in the mind as somewhere worthwhile. ”What about you, Mama?” June said. “I’ll remember the smell of sage. Some nights, after you all were asleep, I went outside and stood there and just…sucked it in.” “I’ll remember Daddy, “ Ellie said. Mary looked out the dusty windshield at the road ahead that narrowed and then disappeared over a small rise. “Where will we go now?” Della said. A man had told Mary that there were farms hiring to the east. Not cotton, she said. Anything but cotton. “There,” she said now, gesturing with her chin. “What’s there?” Ellie said. “Oranges.”” (p.92)
The photographer and her subject
Mary has practically nothing and finally makes the ultimate sacrifice for her children. You’ll have to read it yourself to find out what that is. Don’t be surprised if you don’t come through that chapter without tearing up. Vera, on the other hand, has choices. An important question in the story is, what purpose has photography? Why do you do it? “Vera” doesn’t realize what the impact of her very direct, honest photos are on her subjects, until she gets a letter that Mary Coin had written to her via a magazine. She asks for the magazines with her pictures in them to be recalled, since she thought Vera had no right to take the photos, or “I and my children shall be Forced to Protect our rights”. (p. 176) Of course Mary had no rights to the photos either, but Vera is nevertheless tormented about how to respond, and eventually, she writes:
“There is a sense you get when you have taken the right photograph. It is a feeling that you have lived that second of your life more completely than any other. The moment opens, and you realize how much larger your life is that you thought it was, how much closer to a kind of…is it happiness? I don’t know. I saw you and I recognized you the way you recognize people in your dreams even if you don’t know who they are. That’s all a photograph is, really. A recognition.” (p.302)
That is putting it very well – a photo is a recognition – of a moment, a person, a place. That is, I suppose, why we take photographs, to keep that sense of recognition, because as long as we recognize something, we remember it, and it exists, even if only in our minds. And the recognition can bring back bad memories, or good ones.
For Mary Coin, the photo of her and her children taken at the worst time in their lives, is “a single moment of their lives frozen into an indelible past like an insult you can never take back”. (p.308). Imagine how bitter she must have been to think that. Imagine how that “insult that she could never take back” kept being flung at her every time she saw the photos.
The real Mary Coin and Vera Dare
The letter in the story is based an actual letter Thompson wrote. Lange took the real photo of Thompson, one of a series, in Nipomo, California, in February or March 1936. Thompson’s identity was discovered in the late 1970s, when Modesto Bee reporter, Emmett Corrigan, located Thompson at her mobile home in Modesto. A letter Thompson wrote was published in the Modesto Bee and the Associated Press distributed a story headlined “Woman Fighting Mad Over Famous Depression Photo.” Thompson was quoted as saying “I wish she [Lange] hadn’t taken my picture. I can’t get a penny out of it. She didn’t ask my name. She said she wouldn’t sell the pictures. She said she’d send me a copy. She never did.” The photo is as iconic today as it was after it was first published. No doubt, the descendants of Florence Owens Thompson are still bearing the burden of the repercussions of that one moment.
Silver treads a fine line between historical accuracy and fictionalization. When you read up about Thompson, or watch the Dust Bowl documentary, you realize the novel is very close to the truth. The twist in the plot near the end of the novel, of the professor solving a puzzle of family relationships, is, to my mind, not quite necessary. The progression of the main characters’ lives, described so clearly, with so much restraint and yet so much detail, with not a single word out of place or wasted, are enough to make this novel hugely readable. A bit slow, not easy to get into, but in the end hugely readable and satisfying.
I did wonder, with this level of public knowledge – even an audio recording, available on YouTube, of Thompson talking about her life and the photo – why Silver wrote a novel and not a history or a biography. But of course, we know only the facts, not the back-story, not how all the threads wove together. The facts don’t answer those philosophical questions. They do not completely trigger our recognition. No doubt, like the picture that inspired the author, this novel is good enough to still be appreciated years from now, and will not be one of these you read and leave behind at the airport.
A public image of a private person
There are no known restrictions on Lange’s photos of Florence Thompson. On the website of the Library of Congress where all photos in the series are kept, it states that in 1960, Lange gave this account of her experience:
“I saw and approached the hungry and desperate mother, as if drawn by a magnet. I do not remember how I explained my presence or my camera to her, but I do remember she asked me no questions. I made five exposures, working closer and closer from the same direction. I did not ask her name or her history. She told me her age, that she was thirty-two. She said that they had been living on frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields, and birds that the children killed. She had just sold the tires from her car to buy food. There she sat in that lean-to tent with her children huddled around her, and seemed to know that my pictures might help her, and so she helped me. There was a sort of equality about it. (From: Popular Photography, Feb. 1960).”
About the author
Mary Coin is Marisa Silver’s fifth novel. She is an author, screenwriter and film director. Perhaps that explains why she is able to appreciate the still image and describe so well the workings of a photographer’s mind. She directed her first film, Old Enough, while she studied at Harvard University. The film won the Grand Jury Prize at Sundance in 1984, when Silver was 23. Silver went on to direct three more feature films, Permanent Record (1988), with Keanu Reeves, Vital Signs (1990) and He Said, She Said (1991), with Kevin Bacon and Elizabeth Perkins. The latter was co-directed with her husband-to-be, Ken Kwapis. Her first short story appeared in The New Yorker magazine in 2000 and she published her first the short-story collection, Babe in Paradise, in 2001. In 2005, her first novel, No Direction Home, was published, followed by The God of War in 2008 and Alone with You in 2010.
Here Marisa Silver introduces Mary Coin – both the novel and the character: