Book of the Month: February 2013


Mary Coin by Marisa Silver

A photograph captures an instant in time. Even an iconic portrait like Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother,” which somehow encapsulates an entire era, has a fleeting impermanence that reminds us again and again of the fragility of life. A novel, on the other hand, has the unique capability of unfolding at a pace rich and slow enough for us to glean the complex and interweaving layers that constitute a human life. Marisa Silver’s new novel, Mary Coin, has accomplished an extraordinary feat: by using Dorothea Lange’s photograph as a basis for a novel, she combines the instantaneous power of that image with the luminously imagined story leading up to and after the moment it was taken.

Literary Affairs is delighted to bring Marisa Silver’s newest book, a precisely rendered novel that vividly paints the harsh realities of rural poverty during the Depression while also meditating on art, motherhood and survival, to our readers. Silver’s last book The God of War, was as lauded by critics as it was by our discerning book club members. Silver has risen to the task once again, making the face in that photograph, at once defiant, strong and etched with struggle and dignity, come to full-fledged life on the page.


In her first novel since The God of War, the critically acclaimed author Marisa Silver takes Dorothea Lange’s “Migrant Mother” photograph as inspiration for a breathtaking reinvention—a story of two women, one famous and one forgotten, and of the remarkable legacy of their chance encounter.

In 1936, a young mother resting by the side of a road in Central California is spontaneously photographed by a woman documenting the migrant laborers who have taken to America’s farms in search of work. Little personal information is exchanged, and neither woman has any way of knowing that they have produced what will become the most iconic image of the Great Depression.

Three vibrant characters anchor the narrative of Mary Coin. Mary, the migrant mother herself, who emerges as a woman with deep reserves of courage and nerve, with private passions and carefully-guarded secrets. Vera Dare, the photographer wrestling with creative ambition who makes the choice to leave her children in order to pursue her work. And Walker Dodge, a present-day professor of cultural history, who discovers a family mystery embedded in the picture. In luminous, exquisitely rendered prose, Silver creates an extraordinary tale from a brief moment in history, and reminds us that although a great photograph can capture the essence of a moment, it only scratches the surface of a life.


Marisa Silver made her fiction debut in The New Yorker when she was featured in that magazine’s first “Debut Fiction” issue. Her collection of short stories, Babe in Paradise was published by W.W. Norton in 2001. That collection was named a New York Times Notable Book of the Year and was a Los Angeles Times Best Book of the Year. In 2005, W.W. Norton published her novel, No Direction HomeThe God of War, was published in 2008 by Simon and Schuster and is a finalist for the Los Angeles Times Book Prize for fiction. Her second collection of stories, Alone With You, was published in April, 2010. Her new novel, Mary Coin, will be published by Penguin/Blue Rider Press in March, 2013. Winner of the O. Henry Prize, her fiction has been included in The Best American Short StoriesThe O. Henry Prize Stories, as well as other anthologies.

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