Courtesy of Beaverdale Books
Review by Fay Jones
Blue Rider Press
March 7, 2013
Even if you don’t know Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” by the photographer’s name or the title of her work, you would most likely recognize the famous picture itself. Depicting a worn woman looking off to the side — her hand to her chin as two of her children lean into her — it helps define the sense of the era of the Great Depression. Marisa Silver’s powerful new novel is based on this photograph, and she provides an unflinching yet beautiful portrait of what it was like to live through this fierce time in history.
Silver uses three main characters to structure the novel. “Mary Coin” is based on the true subject of the photograph; she is a 32-year-old widow who we follow from the Oklahoma Dust Bowl to California as she struggles to find work in the fields and keep her seven children alive. Her immense strength, grit and dedication to her children are humbling, yet Silver also portrays her with very real shortcomings. Vera Dare, the woman who quickly photographed Mary and her children as they waited by their car near a pea picker’s camp, is semi-biographical of Lange. Silver offers a bare portrait of Vera, an unglamorous look at a woman whose philandering artist husband abandons her as she in turn abandons her children to devote herself to her work photographing for the Resettlement Administration. The third voice in the novel brings us to the 21st century and Walker Dodge, a professor who studies the importance of everyday small things and how they create history — and also struggles with his family, his children and his work.
Silver deftly and satisfyingly reveals how Walker is related to Mary and Vera, linking their histories. She explores the meaning of a photograph, a moment frozen in time, even as she describes Mary and Vera in old age — forced in the inevitable trajectory through time — as they refer to the famous photo and what it means to them. As well as a creative reimagining of Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” this is an intense depiction of the Great Depression with reverence for the raw struggles of those involved that will no doubt linger with most readers. CV