Think “Great Depression” and the photo (albeit in black and white) on this book cover likely comes to mind pretty quickly–maybe just after an image of F.D.R. or of a man in a fine overcoat selling apples on the street. Maybe you se an image from the book or movie, The Grapes of Wrath. Dorothea Lange, the photographer who captured the image, was simply doing a government job, trying to keep her family going–just like the “Migrant Mother,” in her photograph. She was merely paid a normal salary. Neither photogrpaher nor subject earned any royalties on the sale or use of the image.
This book fictionalizes the story behind one of the best-known photographs in 20th Century American history. The woman renamed Mary Coin in the story, was a mother with six or seven children reduced by the economic collapse we now call the Great Depression to doing migrant fieldwork. Look carefully at that photo. She is not hopeless. Nor is she helpless. She is strong. Those children on either side of her trust her completely–they now she will protect them.
The story is told in three parts: the story of Mary and her children. The story of the photographer–renamed Vera Dare, herself a struggling mother with an otherworldly and unfaithful artist as the father of her children. She is holding on by doing a government job documenting the misery in the country. The final strand of the story is that of history Professor Walker Dodge who is struggling with modern-day family problems while pursuing the past. But other than the obvious–Mary and photographer Vera, do all the strands connect? Well, no spoilers here!
I loved this book from start-to-finish. The Depression is not totally ‘history’ to me–it is somewhat a reality. My Dad was born in a dilapidated farmhouse on another man’s land. That winter they mostly had Cream of Wheat and apples to eat, but Dad grew up to be 6 feet tall and big enough to play football. My grandmother was abandoned by Dad’s father and had to leave him with her parents, lie, and train to be a “beautician” to support them. Along the way she started dating the bus driver who drove the bus back to the farm each week–the man, I knew as my Grandpa. My grandmother’s story has an element of the story given to Vera in the book. Many people were that desperate. Vera’s children, and even Mary’s were the lucky ones–the ones whose families stayed together over the long term. The ones whose fortunes really only improved when the U.S. began churning out war material.
So, based on the numbing hours of family history I was subjected to at a dinner table that did not have coloring sheets or games on a screen or even a kiddie table, this book rings with authenticity. Today we forget how little softness too many people enjoyed before World War II (and even today). How harsh childhood was, hold little cash money people had, how few things most people owned, how bad their diets were. How much work was required just to survive, how little time there was for education or leisure. And, how brutal the whole life equation could be.
Mary couldn’t turn to the government for Medicaid or WIC or TANF–those were mostly in the future. And just like today, having no fixed address, or not having been let go from a full-time, above-the-table job, what “relief” there was wouldn’t help her or her children. She had only herself and that car–the car that “saved them” as she says late in the book. The car that was their home and that took them down the road to the next farm when the field they were in was stripped clean and it was time to sign on and pick something new again. And did you know that field/farmworkers were not included in Social Security?
In spite of all of this, Mary Coin: A Novel is not a depressing book. Mary herself is why–she fights back by not quitting. She isn’t an unsung hero of a union movement or anything–she simply gets out of that car, shack, or tent, each day and goes into the field to work flat-out for 10 solid hours each day, six or seven days a week. To be paid pennies. Pennies. But by doing this she raised her children and they survived. That is heroic.
Mary Coin: A Novel by Marisa Silver
An NPR Book of the Year 2013
The Real “Migrant Mother”–Florence Thompson
Here is a link to the a short piece on Florence Owens Thompson from PBS.