A photograph, Marisa Silver writes at the end of her new novel, "Mary Coin," is "an alchemy of fact and invention that produces something recognizable as the truth. But it is not the truth." It is as if Silver is writing about her own new novel here — about the melding of history and imagination, probability and conjecture that frames "Mary Coin." The story turns around the iconic Depression-era photograph known by most as "Migrant Mother" — that young mother in a roadside tent, those distance-seeking eyes, those two dirty children snuggling away from the scrutinizing thievery of the camera's lens.
"Destitute pea pickers in California. Mother of seven children. Age thirty-two. Nipomo, California." That's the caption you'll find if you search for the photo on the Library of Congress website. And then you'll find this explanation, written by the photographer, Dorothea Lange.
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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.
In real life, this migrant mother was named Florence Owens Thompson. In real life, Lange took the photograph while working for the Resettlement Administration. Lange's claim that the photograph had helped Thompson as much as it had helped Lange was, perhaps, an act of wishful thinking. Lange went on to great fame as a photographer. Thompson struggled — and ultimately heroically succeeded — to raise her many children at a desperate time.
For the purposes of her novel, Silver has chosen to rename both women — Florence becomes Mary Coin, and Dorothea becomes Vera Dare — while hewing as close to known history as her story allows. To this cast of characters she adds a man named Walker Dodge, a present-day professor who, like the real-life Marian Tankersley, takes a special interest in the iconic photograph when he discovers it while emptying his father's home. Silver deliberately muddies the facts that inspired the novel as Walker searches to find a connection between the photograph and himself.
The acclaimed author of "The God of War," "No Direction Home" and two story collections, Silver never rushes her story. Instead, she takes her time, setting down the particulars of her characters with palpable care. Walker's obsession with seeing, rather than looking as well as his work among small domestic objects and found artifacts, has left him lonely after an amicable divorce, more distant from his children than he'd like. Mary, for her part, is a spirited girl who becomes a mother too soon — a hard-working laborer who loves every child she eventually has. Vera, finally, is the photographer with a polio-induced limp who leaves her own children for weeks at a time in pursuit of her artistic ambitions. She'll love her own grandchildren by her life's end, but she won't know how to take their pictures.
Except for the 10 minutes during which the famous photograph is actually taken, these characters' lives don't physically intersect. History denies us the direct confrontation or extended conversation between the photographer and her subject, presenting a challenge to Silver as she seeks to bind the whole into a seamless sum — and to find a best place for her story to end.
Silver's focus on the discretely biographical — her quarantining of Mary, Vera and Walker in long, self-contained passages — produces some truly lovely lines and deeply moving scenes, as when Vera recalls her hospitalization during her recovery from polio:
Each morning, white-coated doctors drew aside the curtain around Vera's bed with a terrible whoosh, stared at her wordlessly, then turned toward one another and nodded while they muttered under their breath like a flock of albino pigeons, with their pink blind eyes, that pecked at the concrete of the schoolyard.
But the strategy is also constraining, impelling Silver to use her fictional character, Walker, to seek connections that may or may not be sustaining or meaningful. At times, Silver's writing also leans toward the academic — toward a life explained as opposed to evoked — as in this passage describing the difficult years of Mary's first marriage:
When James came three years later, they were living in Wilseyville. Luckily, he was a sleepy baby who was content to rest in his basket and stare up at the passing shadows on the ceiling. Each year brought fewer jobs and lower wages for the jobs Toby did manage to get, but Mary kept up her system, believing that order would see them through.
Still, I read Mary Coin in a day — eager to know who this 32-year-old migrant mother was and willing to imagine how it must have felt to be known for all time for an instant in time, to be invaded by conjecture of both the casual and novelistic sort. A photograph is a single snap. In "Mary Coin," Silver suggests all that echoes after that.
Beth Kephart is the award-winning author of 14 books. She blogs daily about literature and life at beth-kephart.blogspot.com.
By Marisa Silver, Blue Rider, 322 pages, $26.95.
Printers Row Journal will run an excerpt from the book as its March 31 fiction supplement.Copyright © 2014, The Baltimore Sun