The lens of time

Mary Coin (NetGalley)
Marissa Silver
Release date: March 7, 2013

“We never really knew [Grandfather],” Isaac says. 
“Some people don’t want to be known,” Walker says.
“That’s stupid,” Alice says. “Everyone wants to be known. Otherwise it’s just fucking depressing.”
Of course, she is right. Everyone wants to be known. Perhaps the ones who conceal themselves most of all. The question is: Who is foolhardy enough to go in search of them? 

Mary Coin is one writer’s attempt at searching for the woman behind Dorthea Lange’s iconic photograph from the Dust Bowl era: the mother,suspicious and weary; the children, shy and shameful; a baby at her breast. Although the actual subject of the photograph has been identified as Florence Owens Thompson, Marissa Silver renamed the woman Mary Coin and created a past  for her from the black and white image so many of us know.

Mary Coin and her husband made their way from a small farm in Oklahoma to California in search of a better life. And for a time, life was as good as might be expected for uneducated laborers during the 1930s–they had a company house and love enough to go around their six children. A mill fire set the young family onto the road again until husband Toby’s death of TB demanded that Mary, ever indomitable,  pick cotton and vegetables and citrus fruit–anything to keep her family going.

Two other lives intersected Mary’s–that of historian Walker Dodge, grandson of a man who once hired Mary Coin, and photographer Vera Dare, Silver’s stand-in for Lange. Both stories looked at family secrets, missed opportunities, and flawed fathers and mothers through the revealing lens that is time. I’m not certain how essential Vera Dare’s story was to the novel, other than her life as a mother was shadowed by some of the same issues that darkened Mary Coin’s life. Walker Dodge had a more direct connection with Mary Dare, and he only came to know her through newspaper clippings, letters, and his grandfather’s accounting records.

Mary Coin was a satisfying read and thought-provoking at the same time, although perhaps attempted too much plot-wise in 330 pages. One of my favorite scenes is when an elderly Mary Coin attends an exhibit of Dare’s work in San Francisco where the photograph is displayed, and listens to the comments of the people around her: “Mary saw her reflection in the glass. There they were. Two women named Mary Coin. If they met on the street in the high heat of a summer’s afternoon, they would be polite in the old-fashioned way to show they meant each other no harm. ‘Hello,’  they would say in passing. ‘My, but isn’t it a wretched day.'”

Quite coincidentally I finished the book after a marathon session scrapbooking my family photos for the past few years. As I backed photos with coordinating colors, added borders and embellishments, and carefully captioned each page, I wondered if anyone would stumble upon these books long after my own children were gone. Would they recognize the joy, pain, and confusion on the people smiling into the sun, clowning with family, sitting down to holiday meals? Or would they recognize that “It is a photograph, an alchemy of fact and invention that produces something recognizable as the truth. But it is not the truth.”  And would they try to seek anything out about those lives on the page? Because “everyone wants to be known. Perhaps the ones who conceal themselves most of all.”

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