Mary Coin
By Marisa Silaver



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The WMBC poses the following questions in addition to those of the Publisher that follow. All WMBC location numbers refer to the Kindle for iPad edition.:

1) Why do you take photographs? Do you have a most memorable photograph? If so, what does it mean to you? What truths (or honest) does it hold?

2) When you read the opening line, “There is something gripping to Walker about a town in decline,” did it evoke any image(s) within you? If so, what? Did you see a town in decline? People nervous? Children starving? Bread lines? How does Walker’s opening statement compare to photography? Here are a few excerpts I found:
Mary – The being of a thing was most powerful when it was seconds from extinction. (Pg 37)
Vera – The camera did that – it asserted your significance and robbed you of it at the same time. (Pg 181)
Vera -- A picture doesn’t bring someone to life. A picture is death of the moment when the picture is taken. Whenever you look at a picture, time dies again. (Pg 216)

3) Walker again says on page 11, “Think about what an image represents on a subconscious level.” Okay, let’s do! Throughout the story, Marisa Silver helps to weave for us an understanding. What did she teach us with the following?
Walker – “So we expect a photograph to tell us the truth.” (Pg 12)
Vera – Sitting opposite the photograph, she felt small inside of time. A rectangle that you look through. (Pg196)
Mary – But none of this information would have anything to do with what happened when one person lifted a camera to her face and took a picture of another. It was more complicated than love. It was more complicated than sex, than children. Or maybe it was the exact expression of those complications, which included intimacy and distance, holding and turning away, lies and never the truth.” (Pg 211)
Walker – It is the human fallacy to believe that we discover any single thing. It is only that we are slow to learn how to see what is in front of us. (Pgs 235-236)

4) Consider when Mary poses as an Indian Princess for a few coins when no one else will -- not even the old woman or Titus who was Cherokee -- and she justifies her actions because her grandfather was called the “Cherokee Murderer” in a newspaper headline. Once she dons the Choctaw outfit and looks around, she feels “the queer nature of her power, the way it made her feel both strong and diminished at the same time.”
How does her reaction, her reaction to the photographer after the photo is taken (pg 45), and her mother’s reaction set the stage for the truth and lies behind that photograph? Also, can you relate this more vital, youthful situation to Mary’s more tired, desperate situation when Vera takes the more famous shot? Refer to question #1.

5) Why do you think Mary had regrets over Vera’s more famous photograph? (Pg 257) “Mary was envious of the woman in the photo because that woman had not had to suffer the future that began the moment the photographer got into her car and drove away.” And, how did it compare to the regret she felt over her earlier photo dressed as an Indian? (pg 47)

6) How are Mary and Vera alike in their situations, with their men, marriages, children, and circumstances during the Depression. Compare, too, how each comment on the loss of significant men in their lives. Pg 89 -- Mary to children at Toby’s death: “He’s left us” and that was not right either because it suggested that he had made a decision to abandon them….”We’re alone.” Verses Pg. 119 – Vera’s mother’s pathetic euphemism to explain her husband’s abandonment: “He’s gone away.”

7) Read aloud and discuss the following excerpts:
Pg 185 -187 – describes the scene where Vera takes the picture of Mary
Pg 176 -- Mary’s letter to not use the picture
Pg 302 -- Vera’s response letter to Mary about the photo.

8) What did you think of Mary’s children asking for money in the 1982 edition of the San Jose Mercury News to help pay for her care? Are they justified, even though Mary agreed to the photo and according to Vera she had no claim to it?
Pg 233 – Walker finds a direct request for money on the part of Mary Coin’s family because Mary is in a weakened condition and they needed to care for her. “That picture’s done a lot of good for a lot of people (Ellie Velasquez) “And she never got anything from it. Not one dime. As far as I’m concerned, she’s owed.” James Coin “She never wanted anybody to know she was the one in the picture. I hope we’re doing the right thing.”

9) How do the scenes compare of Mary giving away her baby (the door closed) to that of her photograph when the shutter closed. Pgs 306-307

10) What was the significance of Alice saying, “She’s worth thirty-two cents” when she sees Mary Coin on a postal stamp (pg 319)? In your mind, did that remark somehow diminish Mary’s contribution?

11) The closing lines are of Walker taking a picture of Alice. She deletes it but Walker says it still exists…in a cloud. How so? Pg 321 – Alice “It doesn’t look like me.” Walker: It is a photograph, an alchemy of fact and invention that produces something recognizable as the truth. But it is not the truth. Walker: “Who does it look like?” Alice “Just some girl.” She pressed the trash icon. They watch as the picture slides down the screen and disappears. But it will always exist. In a cloud. In an invisible language of zeros and ones. There is no erasure.

12) What photographs do you think most represent 2014? Refer to the following web site for some suggestions:

Reading Group Guide for MARY COIN
Page numbers refer to the hardcover edition.

1. Were you familiar with Dorothea Lange’s Migrant Mother photograph before reading Mary Coin? If so, what assumptions did you bring to your reading experiences about the photograph? The photographer?

2. When readers are first introduced to Mary, she is in the midst of her adolescence. How would you characterize her as a teenager? Do these personality traits stick with her throughout the novel? How does her grandfather’s legacy as the “Cherokee Murderer” impact her?

3. After being photographed in the Indian princess garb, Mary remarks that “she felt the queer nature of her power, how it made her feel strong and diminished all at once.” (46) How is this sentiment echoed throughout the novel? Relate this statement to Vera’s perspective of power behind the camera.

4. On page 6, Walker asserts that he tells his children “all his foundational stories, no matter how humiliating.” When considering his relationship with his own father, why does Walker approach parenting in this way? Is it effective? Explore other ways that his childhood has influenced his personal and work-related decisions in adulthood.

5. Mary and Vera both contend with economic hardships throughout the course of the novel, eventually becoming the breadwinners for their families. How do these experiences affect their self-image? Their relationships with their children? Their spouses?

6. The words “For sure, you’ll be lame so” echo in Vera’s mind throughout the novel, yet on page 119 she also notes that her limp is one of her greatest advantages. How does photography help her overcome her self-consciousness?

7. Vera initially views photography solely as an occupation, while Everett is an “artist.” How does her conception of her career change over the course of the novel? Does she ever see herself as an artist? Discuss her ambitions in relation to the expected gender roles of the time.

8. Compare the marital history of Mary and Vera. Are their marriages borne out of love? Necessity? What do they learn from their failed marriages? How do they assert independence in their relationships?

9. On page 224, Walker states that “his image of his grandfather must be a construct derived from largely from photographs” rather than his own recollections. What does this imply about the influence of objects and photographs on memory? Do photographs manipulate—or even create—memories? Relate to modern-day culture. Does our constant documentation via cell phone photography and social media manipulate memory?

10. Walker, Mary, and Vera all express guilt over how they have raised their children. Discuss their concerns and characterize their parenting styles. How do they interact with their children? What do they celebrate about parenthood? What do they regret?

11. When Mary travels to the Goodwill in Chapter 31, she realizes “how silly the idea of owning was in the end.” (272) Given this, why do you think she buys back all of her items? Explore this in connection with the culture of poverty that Mary was raised in. 12. On page 184, Vera admits that she is “embarrassed” by her most famous photograph. Why does she have that reaction? Is she ever comfortable with her fame?

13. The scene where the famous photograph is taken is described twice in the novel, once from Mary’s point of view, once from Vera’s. Discuss the differences in the way the two women experience this encounter. What are the ethical ramifications for both women?

14. When Mary visits the gallery in Chapter 36, she is looking at the photograph when she overhears someone say “You can see it all in her face.” Discuss the irony of this arrangement. What does this assert about the relationship between the viewer and the subject in art? About perception and truth?

15. Discuss the last line of the novel: “There is no erasure.” Why do you think the author chose to end Mary Coin on this note?

Questions for the Author

1. What initially drew you to write about Dorothea Lange’s famous photograph?
A few years ago, I went to an exhibit focusing on photography of the West at the Museum of Modern Art in New York City. Lange’s famous photo was part of the exhibition. I had seen the image many, many times and was always drawn to the woman’s face, which seems to me such a mixture of strength and resignation, as well as to the curious composition of the photograph—the way the children face away from the camera. But what struck me seeing the photo this time was not the image itself but what was written on the curatorial label next to the image. The description noted that the woman in the photograph did not reveal who she was until she was sick and dying, when she appealed for help from the public in order to pay for her medical care. This fact struck me powerfully. Here was a woman who was the subject of, arguably, one of the most famous images of the twentieth century and who, for the better part of her life, did not lay claim to this legacy. I was immediately filled with questions. Did she choose her anonymity or was it chosen for her? Was there something about the taking of the photograph, and its subsequent ubiquity that troubled her? And what must it have meant to her, nearing the end of her life and in a time of physical duress, to make the decision to finally reveal herself?

2. Can you discuss the research you did in preparation for the writing process? Are the character portraits anchored in fact?
Both Mary Coin and Vera Dare are fictional characters and their thoughts and feelings and the words they speak belong only to them. But I drew on many of the facts of both Dorothea Lange’s and Florence Owens Thompson’s lives for inspiration. For instance, Dorothea Lange suffered from polio as a child and walked with a limp all her life. Although I cannot say how her illness impacted Lange, I was able to explore how it affected Vera Dare, in terms of romance and sexuality, and with regards to her development as an artist who has great sympathy for others’ suffering. Lange made the choice to have her children live away from her home at different times in her life. I was able to explore the motivations for and the consequences of that decision for Vera Dare. Although comparatively little is known about the life of Florence Owens Thompson, I took inspiration from her Native American heritage, her early life on a subsistence farm in eastern Oklahoma, and most especially from the letter she wrote to U.S. Camera complaining about the use of the photograph, and, of course, the newspaper article that was written when she was close to dying and needed funds for her medical care. Walker Dodge, the novel’s third major character, is a pure invention.

One of the pleasures I found in writing about a different time in history was the unusual places my research took me. For instance, I had to learn how lumber was milled in California in the1920s, and what kinds of attractions might be included in a traveling carnival in rural Oklahoma in the first decade of the twentieth century. But what I enjoyed above all about the research was finding the details that impacted my characters on an emotional level. It was less important to me to find out the make and model of Mary Coin’s car, than to learn how the seats of that car were sprung and to think about what all that driving might do to her work-worn back.

3. Mary Coin moves seamlessly between the past and present eras. What are the challenges in balancing this type of narrative structure?
Time is perhaps the most intriguing aspect of fiction for me—how it is compressed or extended, how a writer can take pages to explore the complexities of a single moment, and conversely, how entire swaths of time can be left only to the reader’s imagination. In some ways, Mary Coin is a novel about time because it is the story of how a single moment, captured in a photograph, lives on through decades and impacts the lives of the people involved into the future. The novel engages with another aspect of time, as well, because the story is about history, how it is made, how it is recalled, and how our interpretations of the historic moment change as that moment recedes into the past and becomes memory, that highly subjective thing. The structure of the novel, the way it moves in and out of time, and even doubles time by repeating the scene when the photograph felt like a perfect way to suggest some of these deeper implications.

WMBC Discussion questions compiled by:
Elaine Gallant, Nov. 14, 2014
West Maui Book Club