Mary Coin

Mary Coin

by Marisa Silver


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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780399160707
Publisher: Blue Rider Press
Publication date: 03/07/2013
Pages: 336
Product dimensions: 6.56(w) x 9.16(h) x 1.14(d)
Age Range: 18 Years

About the Author

Marisa Silver is the author of the novels The God of War (a Los Angeles Times Book Prize finalist) and No Direction Home; and two story collections, Alone With You and Babe in Paradise (a New York Times Notable Book and Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year). She lives in Los Angeles.

Read an Excerpt

At first she thought someone had released a flock of birds into the room. The museum gallery whispered with the sound of wings and flight and she thought of the starlings wheeling through the flat Oklahoma sky, a solid flag of them waving in the currents of a wind. Was that seventy years ago? More?... A child’s cry broke through. Mary, always keen to a child’s distress, turned towards the sound. And there, across the room, hung the familiar charcoal gray shapes of the image that shadowed her life…. The gallery had grown quieter and, for a moment, Mary was alone with the picture. She 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 one another no harm. “Hello,” they would say in passing. “My, but isn’t it a wretched day?”

What People are Saying About This

From the Publisher

A New York Times bestseller
A Los Angeles Times bestseller

Mary Coin is quite simply one of the best novels I have read in years. 'You'll know who you are when you start losing things,' says one character, and the story burns in this quietly emphatic way, only to erupt in moments of excruciating pain and beauty.  In her portrayal of a time in American history when survival was often a day-to-day thing, Silver drills down to the absolute essentials: family, love, loss, the perpetual uncertainty of life. Again and again I found myself wondering: How does she know that? Silver's wisdom is rare, and her novel is the work of a master."
—Ben Fountain, author of the 2012 National Book Award winner Billy Lynn’s Long Halftime Walk
“Marisa Silver renders the soul of an iconic image, giving it moving life. Mary Coin is a soaring work of imagination, dedication and history.”
—Mona Simpson, author of My Hollywood and Anywhere But Here
“An extraordinarily compassionate and wise novel, Mary Coin imagines the life of Dorothea Lange's iconic "Migrant Mother." What emerges, in Silver's nuanced, resonant telling, is a poignant exploration of a single life that touches many others, and a powerful, moving portrait of America during the Great Depression. Silver is one of those preternaturally gifted writers who can with the lightest of touches make the reader enter a world that feels as fully real as the one around us.”
—Meghan O’Rourke, author of The Long Goodbye
“Inspired by Migrant Mother, the iconic Depression-era photograph snapped by Dorothea Lange in 1936, Silver reimagines the lives of both the photographer and the subject....this dual portrait investigates the depths of the human spirit, exposing the inner reserves of will and desire hidden in both women....The luminously written, heart-wrenching—yet never maudlin—plot moves back and forth through time, as history professor Walker Dodge unpeels the layers of the photograph’s hidden truths.”
—Margaret Flanagan, Booklist

“[A] superb new novel....Silver’s acute observations and understated style are evident here as are her matter-of-fact, unapologetic characters....mesmerizing...Silver has crafted a highly imaginative story that grabs the reader and won’t let go. A must-read for Silver fans that is sure to win over many new followers; the acclaimed author’s best work to date.”
Library Journal, STARRED REVIEW

“Marisa Silver’s transfixing new novel...deftly sprinkles historical fact into her fictional narrative...a raw and emotional tale that leaves readers with a lingering question: Do photographs illuminate or blur the truth?”
O, The Oprah Magazine

“Gorgeous … This narrative of mid-century hope, loss, and disenchantment is both universal and deeply personal. With writing that is sensual and rich, [Silver] shines a light on the parts of personal history not shared and stops time without destroying the moment.”—Publisher’s Weekly, STARRED REVIEW

Mary Coin is the fictionalized story of [the “Migrant Mother” photograph], with Mary standing in for the actual subject, Florence Owens Thompson, and Vera Dare standing in for Dorothea Lange....a story ready and waiting for a fictionalized treatment. And Marisa Silver does it full, glorious justice. The story is compelling and honest, never sentimentalized or made easy, the writing exquisite in its luminous clarity. Silver accomplishes much in this work, including giving a human face and story to overwhelming disaster, just as the original photograph did....Silver’s story is artful in a way that life often is not, carrying the story of one family through several generations....This novel is simply not to be missed. It is memorable.”
Historical Novels Review

“Silver is an evocative, precise writer...[she] smoothly integrates ephemeral period details...[Dorothea] Lange's photograph and the world it conjures up is inherently melodramatic. But Silver's writing isn't: she's restrained and smart. Throughout her novel, Silver tackles big questions about the morality of art and, in particular, the exploitation of subjects in photography.”—Maureen Corrigan, NPR

“Special recognition therefore goes to Marisa Silver, whose new novel, Mary Coin, fictionalizes the circumstances of the most famous image of the Depression...the book is a skillful, delicate apprehension of that photograph and its moment in history....[Silver is] a fine, delicate stylist, with an aphoristic style that fills even simple moments with meaning.”USA Today

“Silver never rushes her story. Instead, she takes her time, setting down the particulars of her characters with palpable care….Silver's focus on the discretely biographical [produces] some truly lovely lines and deeply moving scenes…I read Mary Coin in a day—eager to know who this 32-year-old migrant mother was and willing to imagine how it must have felt to be known for all time for an instant in time, to be invaded by conjecture of both the casual and novelistic sort. A photograph is a single snap. In Mary Coin, Silver suggests all that echoes after that.”
—Beth Kephart, Chicago Tribune

“[A] compelling, hard-to-put down story....As the cover of the novel suggests, the story emanates from the photograph, “Migrant Mother,” taken by Dorothea Lange in continues to haunt us. Just as Silver’s new novel will linger and haunt, attached as it is to the famous photo, which wonderfully deepens the story behind the making of history.”
—Nina Schuyler,

“Silver’s provocative new novel [is] a fictionalized, multigenerational account of [Dorothea] Lange’s life and the life of her migrant farmworker subject. Silver writes beautifully and has meticulously researched her historical details, making for an informative, addictive book whose Depression-era narrative feels particularly relevant in today’s recessionary times.”

“This resonant novel, teasing clues from a famous photograph, keeps us both looking and seeing. And admiring.”
Jeffrey Ann Goudie, Kansas City Star
“In Mary Coin, Silver takes a picture and spawns the proverbial thousand words many times over. The result is a stirring human portrait of two women and the times they lived in.”
—Hector Tobar, Los Angeles Times

“Phenomenal … Silver writes with an unadorned impressionism that never feels self-conscious or fussy … History is not a succession of icons or frozen moments but of messy lives lived, of people doing what they can with what they’ve got. Therein lies the power of this novel, and the Novel: Silver wields it here with grace and devastating effectiveness.”—Antoine Wilson, New York Times Book Review
 “Piercing … Silver is a marvelous writer, capable of stirring profound emotions one moment, intellectual reflection the next.”—Joanna Connors, Cleveland Plain Dealer
Mary Coin is a lovely and deeply satisfying read … Each of these characters is fully realized and amazingly sympathetic; their cumulative story a worthy, nuanced tribute to an indelible image … In the end, she achieves the aims of her historian, discovering — explaining — how history actually happened to people.”—Eugenia Williamson, The Boston Globe
“What sets Mary Coin apart is that Mary’s life pulses with real and relatable humanity before and after her moment as an artistic subject … Mary Coin has a personal history that reads like one of Silver’s expertly drawn short stories, a series of disappointments and tragedies small and large rather than a dramatized biography …  Silver’s writing, in Vera and Mary’s glancing interaction (they meet only once, when she takes the picture) reads less as an indictment of Lange than as a sophisticated reading of her work, one with consequences extending into both fictional women’s futures.”—Daniel D’Addario, The New Republic


Working Woman: Barnes & Noble Review Interview with Marisa Silver

You can stare at that photo of Florence Owens Thompson, taken by Dorothea Lange in 1936, for hours. It's like a conversation that way. Or, you can let the years pass and go back to it and notice something different every time. Today, for example, this viewer stares at the cover of Marisa Silver's novel Mary Coin and notices the bowl-shaped haircut of the child whose head rests on Thompson's shoulder as he looks away from the camera. Also that Thompson looks more than a little bit like Silver herself; northern ancestry, high cheekbones, Finnish eyes, and a slightly worried expression. Or is she a female Zelig — Everywoman?

"Not me!" Silver says. "She looks like my grandmother!" A promising film director in her twenties, an MFA student and new mother in her thirties, and a full-fledged writer with three (now four) novels and a short story collection by fifty-two, the author admits that she "chose Mary Coin because I recognized something in Florence Thompson's face. Those two children squeezed into the frame accentuate her acute responsibility for their lives." She was struck, she says, by Thompson's beauty, and by her duress. "I recognized her as a mother."

Silver had seen the photograph many times in books, but it wasn't until she saw it in a Museum of Modern Art exhibit several years ago that she realized how many mysteries were embedded in it. A little tag to the right of the photo explained that Thompson had not revealed who she was — even after the photo had become an iconic image of the Depression and sealed Lange's fame — until she was on her deathbed. Why? Silver wondered. Shame? Embarrassment?

Silver's filmmaker beginnings came into play: This was a photograph inside a documentary. Who was the maker? What did the photographer see in that face? Silver says that her novels always begin with a character. It wasn't until she found herself naming these characters — the photographer, Vera Dare, the subject, Mary Coin — that she began to see the novel unfold.

Silver moved to California in her twenties from the East Coast: "Everything was so new for me; I took it all in on an intellectual but also an emotional level. I saw the complications of the California dream. I saw how people's lives were and are affected by the land and what happens to the land. I saw for the first time what a profound effect land has on characters." But Silver balks at terms like "California writer" and "California novel." "California eludes us all," she laughs. "It defies easy explanation."

Silver says that while she is respectful of the real lives her characters are based upon, she was not interested in writing a biography. "I wanted to create new lives, to invent their feelings and thoughts." In this effort, the author was inspired by the work of E. L. Doctorow, whose novels lay their foundations in fact. Walker, a character in the novel who teaches the Art of the Image, embodies Silver's impulse to create history from ephemera. "This is not a class about looking," he tells his students. "You look away and you stop thinking, you stop imagining?. This is a class about seeing. And seeing is something else altogether. Seeing is about looking past surfaces of predetermined historic and aesthetic values. Seeing is about being brave enough to say: This unimportant image or piece of information that no one cares about? Well, there is a story here, too, and I'm going to find out what it is." Some of the mysteries embedded in the photograph contain clues that fill in blanks in Walker's family history.

Silver's novels (The God of War, No Direction Home) and her stories (Alone with You, Babe in Paradise) contain a hidden drive, a feeling of something at stake, at risk. Like Walker, she is personally invested in uncovering some truth by telling stories. Social justice, working people, single mothers appear in all of her books, but she insists that she does not set out to debate political ideas or grandstand on issues. In Mary Coin, the life of the migrant laborer in Depression-era America is an important part of the book. "I'm interested in people who work," Silver says simply. "People without a lot of choice; people who lives with high stakes, alongside a constant risk of failure."

This brings us to the subject of teenagers, since both of us have them. Silver's two boys are nineteen and sixteen. "The lives of teenagers seem so precarious," she laughs. "There is that fabulous moment of trying to seize one's personality-terrifying?. I remember it-and I empathize deeply with people on the receiving end of their stress!" Do her boys read her books? No, Silver says. "But they are super proud of me — a mother who tells stories! I think they know that what I write has a personal piece, too, something in flagrante?. That's the part they'd rather not read!" —Susan Salter Reynolds (March 7, 2013)

Customer Reviews

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Mary Coin 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 22 reviews.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Best book I have read all year. Beautiful writing and great insight into her characters and the hardship of life in the Depression.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
While I was engrosssed with the story and its development, I was disappointed that it seemed to end suddenly and without a satisfactory resolution for the modern characters. Then again, maybe that is the grand theme: life is often messy annd without clean edges.
childrensbookreader More than 1 year ago
The story is part fiction but the setting and events were true. It tells the true story of the depression and how one woman captures this truth in pictures. Very well written.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book is beautifully written. It describes with such intensity the lives of the two women involved and the period in which it was written. I highly recommend this fabulous book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I have always loved the cover picture. Silver created vivid characters and pulled me into the world of the people migrating west during the time of the dust bowl. My great-grandmother was part of this migration. She spoke little of the hard times but the shame of poverty never left. I could not put the book down and the images have stayed strong.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great story ,well written
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Beautifully crafted, a story built on an iconic image, but with some deep reflections about history in general. I loved it.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Three main characters - all have interesting lives. Loved reading about the depression era. Overall an A+++ job.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An emotional read!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I loved everything about this book!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Takes the reader to a complee away place with surprising turns in time and events
BookreaderDT More than 1 year ago
Good indication of how tough things were and how resilient a human being can be.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
An excellent read. Loved the way the three stories were intertwined. Great ending....a book that will make you think.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pack your bags for a trip back to a time when the most you could hope for is some form of a roof for your head and a meager wage to feed your family. A period in our history that we have compacted into a single word, Depression. Marissa Silver has painted an all to true picture of the lives of her characters, how their paths crossed and how their chance meetings effected the lifes of their familes more than 60 years later. If you have ever found yourself in your grandmother's attic digging through old pictures and wondering not only who the person or persons that will be forever frozen in this one moment may be, but what was their life like and how their choices shaped the path that brought you to this very second..then this book is for you!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Interesting inspiration for the story.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Even though I enjoyed the book tremendously as a work of fiction. I am a historian of the 1930's and everything Steinbeck, Dorothea Lange, and the Migrant Mother. I know the Dixon family personally as well as Florence Owens Thompson's family since 1990 because of my research. But I do recommend it as a great read. But, it is fiction and most of the information on Migrant Mother herself and her grandson who does exist is not completely accurate. There are good history books around if you want the facts. I really recommend that you read this book and then if interested look for books under migrant mother or Dorothea Lange. Great Read
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love-2-readJT More than 1 year ago
Unfortunately I wanted to give this book as a present, but could not find one without malformed pages. And so, I cannot comment on the story itself.