These Goddamn Times: Beyond the Frame of Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother”

The dust jacket for Marisa Silver’s Mary Coin shows a section of the iconic depression-era photograph by Dorothea Lange, “Migrant Mother.” The original black and white photo, reprinted in thousands upon thousands of periodicals, history books, retrospectives, anthologies, and other countless publications, depicts a woman who looks aged beyond her years, her children facing away from the camera, one with his head resting on her right shoulder, one on her left, and an infant in her lap. The partial view, printed in muted color on the dust jacket of Mary Coin, closes in on the subject’s face—sun- and weather-worn, her hair lank, and with a look that encapsulates the glassy-eyed dread, fear, and agitated exhaustion of near starvation.

Little was known about the actual “migrant mother” whose image launched Dorothea Lange’s career. A few facts have surfaced here and there over the years since the 1936 picture. Her name: Florence Thompson. Her age at the time of the photo: thirty-two. She was at least half Cherokee, and she came from Oklahoma—minor identifying facts of an entire life that existed well outside of that split second captured in the photo, which seemed to carry on a life of its own, encompassing all of the tragedy common to migrant workers who had fled the dust bowl to beg for a few hours of work here and there on farms across California’s Central Valley.

Mary Coin is the name Silver gave to her fictional version of the “migrant mother.” Dorothea Lange becomes Vera Dare, and Silver invents another character a couple of generations younger, a San Francisco professor named Walker Dodge. These three characters share the plotline of Mary Coin, their stories told in interspersed sections, set in different times in their lives.

Walker Dodge, whose story bookends the novel, teaches a course called “Images: Codes and Democratic Valuation.” He tells his students, “‘This is a class about seeing… Seeing is about looking past surfaces of predetermined historic and aesthetic values. Seeing is about being brave enough to say: This important image or piece of information that no one else cares about? Well, there is a story here, too, and I’m going to find out what it is.’” Mary Coin does exactly that, taking us beyond the surface of “Migrant Mother” to discover the story, the human experiences behind the photograph that make the image important.

Dodge seems to be engaged with this same struggle, but with his own life instead a photograph. A divorced father of two teenaged children struggling to connect to his troubled daughter and disengaged son, he retreats into his own personal history when his father’s death leaves him the inheritor of his childhood home, a large Victorian estate and the surrounding farmland that had been their family legacy for generations. Through the clinical process of academic interpretation of the familiar objects in that home, he tries to piece together the mystery that was his emotionally detached and reticent father, and learn about his own childhood, his origins, and himself.

Until the very end, when his character becomes more fully formed through a series of internal transformations and discoveries, Dodge was my least favorite of the three characters. Yet his sections of the novel also contain some of the lines that best illustrate Silver’s keen observations and her grasp of the emotional landscape of storytelling. The novel opens with a gorgeous line that captures the elusive sensation of nostalgia:

There is something gripping to Walker about a town in decline. As he drives down the streets of his youth, he feels as if he were looking at faded and brittle photographs of a place lost to time. The gap between what exists and what once was creates a sensation of yearning that feels nearly like love.

In Vera Dare, Silver’s fictional version of Dorothea Lange, we see only the least glamorous parts of her life. Skirting over the portrait-snapping Roaring Twenties period of her young adulthood, when she lived in studios in San Francisco and hobnobbed with her wealthy and elite subjects, we get barely an impression of this bohemian dream life before her first marriage to Everett Makin—inspired by Maynard Dixon—becomes a bruising series of infidelities and torturous public betrayals. During this time, Makin was a famous Western painter while Dare was an unknown portrait photographer. While her clients told her how they’d seen him often with other women, she, with their two children in tow, did her best to pass it off as nothing.

All the while she kept up this insane patter, something disintegrated inside her. She found out that there had been others: a young acolyte whom he professed to have taught life drawing, a Mexican painter, a woman notorious for her affairs with well-known married men. Vera knew that if she said anything to him about his infidelities there would be no argument, no begging for forgiveness. He would simply leave.

There are other permanent wounds. Her childhood bout with polio, which left her with a permanent limp. Her father’s abandonment. The necessity of giving up her children to live most of the time at the home of a stranger when she could no longer afford them. The first year of the Great Depression took her children away and dissolved what was left of her marriage in one fell swoop. And then we briefly see the beginning of her second marriage, to a more devoted, more stable man, an economist, and their work with the FSA to document the plight of migrant workers. The photograph that inspired the novel was nothing more than a scene. A day at work. We see Dare again in the weeks before her death, a time during which she receives a strange letter from Mary Coin asking her to cease use of her image, decades after it had become iconic; Coin was not aware that the image was not Dare’s, but property of the US Government.

As much as “Migrant Mother” came to represent a distinct time in American history, Mary Coin is a novel that’s less about an era, and more about the people and lives whose stories it tells. In an interview with Silver by Meghan O’Rourke at the LA Public Library in March, Silver described the distinction between a historical novel and Mary Coin. In a typical historical novel, she said, every detail that places the story in its time comes into sharp focus. But in Mary Coin, rather than describe the period-correct fabric of her characters’ frocks or the street corners they inhabited and what establishments had storefronts on them and what type of paint would have been used on their signs, Silver was clear that her focus was on the characters, and what they would have experienced in the story themselves. If the type of soap they used to wash their dishes wouldn’t have occurred to the character, she didn’t put it in the story.

I would have preferred more atmospheric detail in Mary Coin. I like to be able to feel, smell, and see what the characters are doing, even if they wouldn’t name objects specifically in their own conversational telling of the story. Mary Coin is sparse on the details of setting, and for a novel based on as visual medium as a photograph, it’s not an especially visual story.

However, what the novel lacks in physical description, it makes up for in observation of the human spirit. For instance, woven into the subtly rendered and heartbreaking scene in which Vera and Everett bring their kids to Oakland to live with a woman who takes on children whose parents cannot afford them, Silver captures a pathos that extends well beyond Vera and her children:

The boys nodded solemnly, but Vera knew there was no agreement, only acceptance, because it was their fate to be at the mercy of adults, and now there was something else called the ‘times,’ or ‘these goddamn times,’ or sometimes, from their father, ‘these fucking times,’ and a new realization that even though their parents had control over mealtimes and bedtimes and times to wash hands and brush teeth, there was this other kind of time that their parents had no power over.

The language in Mary Coin is simple, precise, and restrained, as if to be lyrical would be to betray the truth of the Depression.

Silver seems to discover the story of the photograph “Migrant Mother,” much the same way that her character Walker Dodge would ask his students to, creating a living narrative that breaches our predetermined values of an image that has become flattened by generations of repeated exposure. Our cultural narrative has made the image as emblematic of the Great Depression as The Grapes of Wrath, bread lines, and “Brother, Can You Spare a Dime,” but at the same time has dulled the photograph’s ability to excite our imaginations. If the photograph has become a dead thing, Silver has breathed life into it by creating characters that live beyond the split second of the shutter click and the four edges of the photo.

Mary Coin’s life seems to span centuries rather than decades. Born in Oklahoma, she, like Florence Thompson, was at least half Cherokee. Her life comprises the legacy of her native culture, constant “woman’s work,” and a seemingly anachronistic colonial environment of whitewashed fences, a clapboard church, and one-room schoolhouse. These, and constant battles against eternal suffocating dust, were her only experiences in life until her young, passionate marriage to the neighbor’s son, who would keep her pregnant as long as he lived. She won her survival of the Great Depression the same way she had weathered her life beforehand: by luck, hard labor, and a disposition that could withstand malnutrition just long enough to find the next piece of bread. This period seemed only an extension of the drab and utilitarian life that came before it. By contrast, the deep affection and love she shared with her children and late husband were simple and innocent, full of passion and uncomplicated devotion.

We see her again, like Dare, in the weeks before her death, in the early eighties, living in a trailer home. She is still surrounded by her children, each now with their own distinctive personalities. Mary Coin is a barnacle, something soft and keenly intelligent and even a little sentimental, crusted over with an ugly, abrasive exterior that, while unafraid, won’t let anyone near without first inflicting a few surface wounds, if only out of habit. She must visit a Vera Dare exhibit and tie up a couple of other loose ends from her past before she can consent to her natural death.

Mary Coin is about everything beyond the frame of the photograph that inspired it: a realistic portrayal of human behavior and emotion, which are not necessarily as bleak as their circumstances suggest.

In an opinion piece for the New York Times in March, Silver wrote, “I believe that the more firmly rooted in a place a novel is, the more it paradoxically transcends that place… The mixture of people, all of us migrants, whether from Mexico or Central America, the Oklahoma Dust Bowl or the East Coast, makes for cultural mash-ups that continually confound expectations.” I believe this sentiment is also true of time. Mary Coin shows that rather than being products of time and place, people are made up of thousands of experiences and stories that transcend both. Her portrayal of the Depression is one of sheer deprivation-induced weariness, but the characters are all migrants, in physical origin as well as in spirit, and Silver captures something unique inside each one that transcends the suffering of the Depression as well as its iconography.

Erica Blumenson-Cook earned a BA in creative writing at San Francisco State University. She works as a grant writer in Los Angeles.