Just in time for the end of Women’s History Month, I have a book regarding a famous photograph that is actually about the history of two women. Migrant Mother: How a Photograph Defined the Great Depression by Don Nardo captures not only the life of Florence Owens Thompson, the subject of the iconic portrait, but also reveals the life of the photographer, Dorothea Lange, a woman with her own impact on history.
The story of the photograph is much more dramatic than you might think. Dorthea Lange was just finishing a month-long assignment and was driving home to see her family. She was exhausted and it was raining. When she saw the sign “pea-pickers camp” along the highway, she drove right by. She continued driving for 20 miles. She was going home. But something made her turn around and drive all the way back. The result is this era-defining photograph:
The woman in the photograph was part of a group of migrant workers who went from farm to farm picking vegetables during the Great Depression. They were huddled in a makeshift tent. She told Lange that they were eating leftover frozen vegetables from the surrounding fields and any birds they could catch. Later in the book we learn more about Thompson and her situation and how she came to resent the photograph.
Nardo fills the book with black-and-white images, including other images taken of Thompson taken the same afternoon. (In fact, the size of the book and number of photographs give the book the look of a picture book at first glance, although the text is obviously for an older audience.) The only color image is a modern one of Thompson’s grown-up daughter, Katherine McIntosh, shown in the video interview below.
Migrant Mother is a look at the complexity of the lives of two women whose paths crossed during a difficult time in history. This book is an awesome resource for teachers, with a Timeline and Source Notes. It speaks to both the themes of education and empowerment.
One of Thompson’s daughters speaking briefly about their life:
Nonfiction Detectives also has a review of Migrant Mother
Reading level: Ages 10 and up
Paperback: 64 pages
Publisher: Compass Point Books (January 2, 2011)
Book provided by the publisher for review purposes.
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