Wednesday, May 22, 2013


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Mary Coin, Marisa Silver, Penguin Press, 2012, 261 pp

I did like this partly historical novel; not as much as I liked Marisa Silver's last novel, The God of War, but I liked it. She used the famous Migrant Mother photo by Dorothea Lange to create her own fiction, changing all the names and telling an adapted story about Dust Bowl migrants. She tied those historical characters to people in the present.

She circles around between the lives of the migrant mother, the photographer, and a young man from one family of big planters who employed migrant workers, with regular jumps into the present. In interviews, Marisa Silver freely admits to doing all the research on the characters and then making up her own story about them. So it is hard to know what is fact and what is fiction, but it makes for a good tale.

I once did a writing exercise that required me to study the photo of the migrant mother and compose a few paragraphs about what I imagined was going through her mind. It was a bit eerie to read the novel and hear some of my own thoughts being echoed.

My reading group mostly discussed the art of photography, the differing roles of photographer and subject. I was not much conscious of that topic as I read.

Instead I became immersed in the two women themselves and the ways that circumstances had shaped their lives, especially as mothers. Both had to make hard decisions due to the Depression. Both had to assume full responsibility for their children and each one reacted in different ways. 

Then there is a modern day male character whose passion is history. He discovers the past by means of artifacts and documents and photographs and eventually traces his family history back to the Dust Bowl days. In some ways, his life parallels the lives of the historical characters, allowing the reader to ponder the ways we make sense of the present by reconstructing lives of people who came before us. Since most of my writing currently is in the memoir genre, that was interesting or at least curious to me.

The writing in this novel veers back and forth between deeply personal accounts of the characters and somewhat emotionless recounting of historical events. Every time she switched from one style to the other was a jolt for me and kept me from ever fully sinking into the book. I think her characters were compelling enough to have shown the history, obviating the need for all the telling.

(Mary Coin is available in hardcover and eBook by order from Once Upon A Time Bookstore.)

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