Mary Coin

by Marisa Silver

Mary Coin

Paperback, 322 pages, Penguin Group USA, List Price: $16 | purchase


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Hardcover, 322 pages, Penguin Group USA, $26.95, published March 7 2013 | purchase

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NPR Summary

Marisa Silver reimagines the story behind Dorothea Lange's famous Depression-era photo, Migrant Mother. In Silver's story, two women — photographer and subject — briefly cross paths, and a contemporary professor of cultural history uncovers a mystery captured in the resulting photo.

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Excerpt: Mary Coin

Mary Coin

Part One



Porter, California, 2011

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. The old residential section of town with its stripped and weathered homes and the buckled remnants of what were once tree lined sidewalks is like a dead star, history and time lost in its collapse. All newness, all brightness, has moved to the outskirts, where there are the usual array of Taco Bells, and Kmarts housed in ersatz Spanish Colonial malls. Still, Porter cannot escape its past. It is surrounded by the fields of California's Central Valley, which are as old as Walker's family who have worked them for a hundred and thirty years, as old as the Yokut tribes who roamed them before that, paying spiritual tribute to a land that sustained them. Which is all Walker's ancestors ever wanted from this place to begin with: the assurance of a future.

Walker drives past his old high school. A marquee posts the results of the state proficiency exams, which are apparently good enough to merit four exclamation points. He passes the football field, its green dulled and yellowed by the late summer sun. He remembers his string of desultory athletic failures — the dropped relay baton, the single basket scored after the final buzzer — high school shames he buried with a biting and sarcastic intelligence and a studied apathy that enraged his father. Walker makes a point of telling his children all his foundational stories, no matter how humiliating. He wants to front-load Isaac and Alice with a sense of their history so that they will not feel as unmoored as he does now, driving toward his father's house, toward his father, who is dying.

Walker is astonished by how little he knows about his father's childhood. The few stories he was told have had to pull duty as the narrative of an entire life and have taken on outsized and probably erroneous metaphorical significance. He knows that George let his brother convince him to climb to the roof, only to have Edward pull out the ladder from under him, leaving George dangling from the rain gutter until the groundskeeper rescued him. He knows that his grandmother, George's mother died giving birth to him and that Edward is not really his brother at all but his half brother. Walker knows that his father lettered in archery, that he had a dog who grew drunk off a grape arbor and staggered home reeking like a town derelict, that he shined his shoes with an electric shoeshine, had his nails manicured once a week at the barbarshop downtown and that he smoked one cigar a year after all the crops had yielded. He knows that his father ate a baloney sandwich and tomato soup for lunch every day of his life and that he dressed in khaki pants, a white button-down shirt and Rockports whether in the boardroom or in the field. Walker knows these things not from his father having told him but from gleaning information from family acquaintances and household staff or by observing the man whose translucence created in Walker an obsessive if wary curiosity. As Walker drives, he shuffles these random bits of information around, trying to work out an arrangement that completes the picture of his father. But there are too many missing bits. George Dodge was uninterested in sharing his past when there was so much future to exploit. He turned the century-old family fruit groves into a successful family-owned corporation, shipping oranges from Porter as well as melon and lettuce from his farms on the westside of the Valley all over the country. And if there is one truism about farming it is that it is a business of futures, of growth and harvest and planting and growth and on and relentlessly on. A person who gets mired in the past sees his crops grow brown and useless, and other growers swoop in to capture market share. "You have to grab your moment!" was George's gruff response when Walker came home reporting a poor grade or a lost game. "You're missing your future, boy," he pronounced, when Walker was eighteen and told his father that he wanted no part of farming but that he preferred to study history.

"History?" George said, his mouth twisting into an expression of disbelief.

"Understanding the mistakes of the past so we don't repeat them," Walker answered in a tone that, twenty-three years later, he cringes to recall. Such arrogance. A right of youth, he supposes, a necessity. How else is it possible to face the terrifying void of your unformed self except by claiming absolute intelligence?

"History will get you nowhere," George said.

Well, it has got him somewhere, Walker thinks, in silent conversation with his father, for whom most conversations were silent. Walker is a social historian. He teaches college during the school year and takes the summer months to perform his field research in towns just like Porter, where he is continually drawn to the buried and forgotten stories, to the molecules of the past that are overlooked by most traditional academics. He trolls through newspaper morgues and attics filled with dusty and forgotten photo albums. He studies the ephemera: the grocery lists and obscure diaries, the death notices and high school honor rolls, looking for the clues hidden within these random pieces of information that might tell how history actually happened to people. He leaves it to other historians to interpret treaties and battles. Walker wants to know what people wore, how they dried their clothes, what they served at their weddings, how they buried their dead. He needs to answer these small, seemingly insignificant questions in order to answers to the larger ones. How does the unusual uptick in suicides in a rural midwestern town give lie to the romantic notions of pastoral bliss touted during the Industrial Revolution, when cities were soot-filled and disease-ridden factories of human attrition? Walker spent three years traveling to a town in Minnesota to answer that question. At his best, his work achieves a psychological portrait of a place and a time. At his worst — well, his work has been accused of being beside the point and subjective. History will get you nowhere.

Walker turns into the driveway of his childhood home. The once venerable Queen Anne that has been the Dodge family seat for one hundred years has grown saggy with age — its white coat dingy as old teeth. The porch that encircles the ground floor is pocked with wood rot. He had hoped to arrive early enough to spend time with his father, but the situation must have worsened in the last few hours; the ambulance has already arrived. Angela, George's home nurse and the daughter of Beatriz, his housekeeper, who was once Walker's childhood ninera, stands at the door as the EMTs wrestle the gurney down the porch steps. Walker's mother, Eileen, has been dead for ten years, and he misses her often and especially at times like this. She was a wife of the old school, a Mills College graduate who used a refined intelligence to manage all the contrapuntal temperaments in the household as if she were conducting an unruly elementary school orchestra. If she were still here, Walker imagines that somehow she would find a way to make the situation feel normal, the situation of a once tenacious and unyielding man being helplessly borne toward his death.

From Mary Coin by Marisa Silver. Copyright 2013 by Marisa Silver. Excerpted by permission of Blue Rider Press.

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