by Marisa Silver
Try to imagine what Florence Owens Thompson was thinking in this iconic “Migrant Mother” photograph, a picture that was taken in 1936 by Dorothea Lange. Lange was a government employee, on assignment to show the plight of poor migrant workers during America’s Great Depression, and this image became a national symbol of the extreme hardships these destitute Americans endured. To me, she looks tired and worried, but also strong and resolved. When this picture was taken, Thompson was a widow with seven children, and she worked in the fields to support her family, picking cotton, peas, and oranges. She and her children traveled to wherever there was work, living in tents and scraping by to do no more than exist.
Marisa Silver used this image as inspiration for Mary Coin, a work of historical fiction based on the incredible and difficult life of Florence Thompson and her children.
I enjoyed reading Mary Coin. Silver is an excellent writer and she makes it very easy to imagine what Thompson’s life was like. She presents the story from three perspectives, beginning with Walker Dodge in the present day, whose family has owned an orange grove in California for four generations. When Walker’s father, George dies, Walker must go through the family home and clear out his father’s belongings, furniture, books, and seemingly unimportant, outdated papers. Trained to notice details, Walker begins to piece together a different picture of his family, particularly the lives of his father and grandfather.
Mary’s story begins in Oklahoma when she is a teenager. She is restless and in search of something more than the life she leads in her family’s mud house. Mary reads the newspapers that cover their walls for insulation and feels excluded from a bigger world, “aware that there were words and ideas meant only for people who already knew them.” She’s drawn to Toby Coin, a boy in her village. They marry when she becomes pregnant, marking the beginning of Mary’s life as a mother.
Vera Dare begins her career as a portrait photographer, taking pictures of wealthy society women. She marries and has children, but her marriage is doomed and when the Depression hits, Vera gets a job taking photographs for the government. Her picture of Mary Coin gains national recognition, Mary remains anonymous, and their lives continue independently until years later.
As the years pass and the two women age, each feels compelled to confront and explain the significance of their meeting. And when Walker makes discoveries in his father’s house, we learn about the significance of his family’s link to Mary.
Silver follows Thompson’s story closely, but it’s important to remember that this is a fictional work. It is fun, however, to imagine the personalities of these people and the story of Mary Coin allows you to do just that. Reading Mary Coin makes me want to re-read The Grapes of Wrath, by John Steinbeck, one of my all-time favorites.
For the record, Dorothea Lange did not receive royalties or any kind of payment (other than her salary) for her photograph of Florence Thompson. The picture was the property of the U.S. government. Lange did, however, receive a great deal of professional recognition after taking the picture, which helped boost her career. Thompson’s identity remained anonymous until 1978 when a reporter tracked her down and told her story.
I recently found additional information about Thompson and her children, including two great interviews of her daughter, Katherine. It’s a fascinating story and I think the interest begins with that very photograph and the serious, but not-totally-readable look on Thompson’s face.
Great 2008 interview with Katherine McIntosh, one of the children in the photo (girl to the left):
Another interview with Katherine McIntosh 2009:
Great article from the Tampa Bay Times: http://www.tampabay.com/features/visualarts/depressions-migrant-mother-remains-a-powerful-image/493338
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