The Women of the Copper Country
by Mary Doria Russell
Atria Books, 2019
Mary Doria Russell is one of those rare authors who can make genre her playground. Readers may recognize her as the author of the science fiction novel The Sparrow or the fittingly titled Doc Holiday murder mystery, Doc. But in her newest release, The Women of the Copper Country, Russell narrows in her wide field of vision on the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
The copper mining town of Calumet is where the meat of this historical novel takes place. It lies in the Western region of the Upper Peninsula, where native copper is plentiful on the shores of Lake Superior. In 1913, the hugely profitable Calumet & Hecla Mining Company employed tens of thousands of primarily immigrant laborers to mine this land for the valuable resource. The work was extremely dangerous; multiple funerals per month were not only common, but practically expected.
Though it seems unfathomable today, the pay for this work was outrageously low considering the risk involved. When Calumet & Hecla began demanding workers further put their lives into jeopardy with one-man drills, a cost-cutting solo operation that left the worker without a partner and thus enough hands to both do the job and protect himself from harm, it was the last straw for the miners of Calumet.
Russell has her characters observe how improbable a strike felt in those days. As the mine workers were immigrants from all different parts of the world, language barriers kept them from developing the type of community bond necessary to first organize a strike, and then keep it going. But Calumet had a unique unifying force that allowed them to cross these cultural barriers, and she was six foot two and Slovenian.
Anna Klobuchar Clemenc, known commonly as “Big Annie,” was the president of the local Women's Auxiliary, and in this book she may as well be the woman of the Copper Country. The fictional Big Annie is described by another pivotal character as being “built like the statue of Lady Liberty in New York Harbor and five times prettier,” and is an equally imposing figure as her real-life counterpart. In order to get the multilingual community of copper miners to unify, she taps into her nearly endless supply of empathy, rolls up her sleeves, and starts by appealing to the wives, mothers, sisters, and daughters of the laborers:
“Rich men like James MacNaughton believe they've climbed to the peak of a pyramid,” she says. “But that's not where they are. They're at the bottom of a spinning top. Shift the weight, girls, and over it goes!
The strikers' demands of the company and its stone cold regional manager James MacNaughton are nothing more than what someone today would expect to receive in the workplace: “Recognition of the union for collective bargaining. A decent living wage...an eight-hour day, five days a week. Improvements in mine safety – and an end to the one-man drill.” Yet the company shows no signs of negotiation, let alone capitulation. They may not know it at the start, but the union will be doomed to face many hardships in their quest for worker's rights.
Over the course of this novel, we see this struggle play out with every chapter being led with a snippet from Shakespeare's Romeo and Juliet. Our opposing forces, our Capulets and Montegues, are the workers and the owners caught up in the age-old capitalist struggle. But Mary Doria Russell demonstrates her skill in the way she makes what otherwise may be a textbook dialectical struggle into something personal and homegrown.
Many different characters in this situation get their turn in the narrative driver's seat: Annie's temperamental husband Joe, an orphaned girl who looks up to Big Annie, a photographer covering the strike, the unyielding suit James MacNaughton, amongst others. This allows the reader to get a well-rounded view of this tug-of-war. It is this personal touch that assists the modern audience in understanding how and why the harsh tactics of the company were so effective by first making clear the vulnerable position of the workers and their families.
The writing makes her approach all the more successful. Her prose is appropriately simplistic, but rich with nuance. By cutting down on the window dressing, Russell is able to focus in on characterization through dialogue and body language which represents her true authorial muscle. Nearly every conversation is a loaded one and close readers will be rewarded for an attention to detail, especially when minor characters burst onto the scene to either throw a wrench into the union's plans or to provide moral and financial assistance:
She leans over the table and whispers fiercely, “Do you know what really brought young Joan of Arc to that stake in the end? They burned her because that girl succeeded, if only for a little while, where all those fine, noble aristocratic generals had failed...Well here's the truth of it. There is never a good time to strike. The odds are always with the house.”
But since we are so laser-focused on the people of this story, a noticeable stumbling point in the portrayal of Calumet & Hecla manager James MacNaughton begins to stand out. Though his tactics are true to the history books and the villain shoes fit, his demeanor is far more robotic and efficiency-obsessed than felt realistic. Though he is a Social Darwinist, his inherent sense of entitlement didn't go deep enough and his rage against the workers disrupting his finely-tuned system never felt appropriately intense.
Even with that minor infraction, this book is a triumph. Big Annie's heart is as big as she is tall and readers will fall in love with her dedication to making things better for future generations. Inspirational moments are abundant as Annie and other characters appeal to the workers' desire for a better life. Astutely researched, the writing of this book was clearly a labor of love for the author. She stays true to the heart of this lesser-known part of American history while tweaking just enough to give it the momentum and power it needed to make a compelling story.
—Olive Fellows is a young professional and Booktuber (at http://youtube.com/c/abookolive) living in Pittsburgh.