‘Always blame conditions, not men,” writes Frank Norris in his 1901 epic, “The Octopus: A Story of California.”
It’s a sentiment that echoes throughout “Mary Coin,” Marisa Silver’s California story about history’s cruel gears. For a book about the loss, poverty, and alienation of the Great Depression, “Mary Coin” is a lovely and deeply satisfying read.
Silver’s third novel was inspired by “Migrant Mother,” the iconic and heartbreaking Dorothea Lange photograph of a deeply worried pea picker and her starving children. An alteration of the photograph makes up the cover of the novel. Silver’s narrative, loosely based on the biographic details of Lange and her subject, spans 91 years and is told from three perspectives: that of the photographer Vera Dare, the migrant farmer Mary Coin, and the academic Walker Dodge. Each of these characters is fully realized and amazingly sympathetic; their cumulative story a worthy, nuanced tribute to an indelible image.
The novel begins in 2011 with the death of Walker Dodge’s father, a Northern California farm-owner. Dodge, a social historian who focuses his research on ephemera in order to discover “how history actually happened to people,” uses the same methodology to solve gaps in his knowledge of his family’s past. Mary Coin and Vera Dare tie in — but how? The gradual discovery of how these disparate lives intersect proves a riveting plot device, thanks largely to Silver’s considerable intelligence and trust in her readers.
When a writer doesn’t bother to engage meaningfully with the era in which she sets her book, it’s not merely lazy: It shows contempt for both the reader and the past itself.
Silver didn’t cut any such corners. Take, for instance, Mary Coin, who grows up in a dirt shack, lacks much formal education, and works tirelessly to keep her seven children alive as jobs and food become more and more scarce. Where another writer might be tempted to sentimentalize or exoticize such a figure, Silver doesn’t. Instead of a rough-hewn mystic spouting the wisdom only terrible adversity can bring, the reader finds a woman with realistic joys, sorrows, and flaws. The same can be said of Vera Dare, a 1930’s San Francisco bohemian whom Silver never condescends to make glamorous or omniscient. Both women were, of course, exceptional: one survived the Dust Bowl, the other defied rigid societal expectations. And while Silver gives each her due, she never does so at the cost of believability.
The novel strains credibility only when it comes to the Great Depression, and rightfully so: Even a century later, the hardship of those times still defies comprehension. Delivered through the eyes of characters with realistic gaps of understanding, Silver’s impressionistic, micro-account of the worst period in US history — a crying child, a ragged fingernail — feels suitably tragic, but never maudlin. The reader is left with a sense of awe that anyone could survive.
But perhaps Silver’s biggest accomplishment is in writing such a faithful update of the 19th-century social novel without coming across as recherché. “Mary Coin” boldly engages the same sweeping themes as did Frank Norris and his ilk: life, death, class, politics, and even meaning. Silver exceeds her own ambitions, creating a world that places the blame squarely on the shoulders of conditions, not men; one in which her characters experience “the same history . . . from opposite sides of fate.” In the end, she achieves the aims of her historian, discovering — explaining — how history actually happened to people.