Book Review for “The Women of the Copper Country” by Mary Doria Russell.
Anna Klobuchar Clemenc (or Clements) was known as “Big Annie” but also received the moniker of America’s Joan of Arc for her leadership with the Women’s Auxiliary No. 15 of the Western Federation of Miners during the months long strike in Calumet, Michigan of 1913-14 in the area they called Copper Country. This difficult strike was one where union workers were trying to get better pay, shorter hours, safer work conditions, and a five-day work-week was already failing when the Italian Hall disaster hit the town. This Christmas party disaster left 57 people dead, mostly children. This was probably the incident that Supreme Court Justice Oliver Wendell Holmes had in mind when he said in 1919, “The most stringent protection of free speech would not protect a man in falsely shouting fire in a theater and causing a panic.” [Emphasis mine] This book is Annie’s story about this fateful time in Michigan history, that far too many have forgotten.
Okay, so… this is an extremely important story, and one that is very timely – at least for me, that’s how it feels. In fact, I’d go so far as to say that this is a whole lot more than just a work of biographical, historical fiction because the things that these people lived through are an example of the levels of extreme harm that callous greed can have on poor, working people. Sure, of course, it was over a century ago that the backbreaking and dangerous work of miners earned them a measly two dollars a day for 12 hours of work, six days a week. Although this isn’t today’s reality, that doesn’t mean we can’t see how capitalistic industry, when not regulated to ensure the health and safety of their employees, and not held accountable regarding fair wages and kept in check regarding corporate greed is no less harmful today. One could almost say that this is almost the blueprint for a dystopian story of what could happen all over again in the future, if we aren’t vigilant.
Furthermore, the mining industry at the time was probably so profitable because a vast majority of the workers were immigrants, of whom employers could easily take advantage. Russell describes a community where the xenophobia and racism runs rampant under the guidance and leadership of the James MacNaughton, the President and Director General of the Calumet & Hecla Mining Company. Russell portrays him as a super-villain, which history backs up in full. As an antagonist for the story, he was just there, ripe for the picking, and I think that Russell used him perfectly. The amount of disgust readers will feel for this man will not be hyperbolic in the least. However, a little googling showed that his power and influence was even more expansive than Russell depicts.
This only proves that Annie’s fight in leading this strike, although doomed from the start (at least in the short term), was even more courageous than we can imagine. Russell’s portrait of Annie is so intricate and intimate, that we feel we’re right there beside her, even though the whole story is told in third person omnipresent. Furthermore, Russell brings this same artistry and depth to both some fictional and semi-fictional characters to round out the story. The major semi-fictional one is Jack, the son of the real-life Solomon Kivisto, who was the last miner to die before the strike. Another is Eva, the young daughter of a miner who also died in the mines, and Russell builds a relationship for them, despite their very young ages (about 15).
In fact, Eva’s youth, combined with the ultimate downfall of the town, is what allows Russell to imbue this book with a note of hope, despite all of the hopelessness that came beforehand. Mind you, the last four or five pages of this novel in which the focus shifts away from Annie and onto Eva were a touch too detailed for my taste, and could have been shortened by about half without sacrificing anything. That, however, is my only niggle for this novel, and as you can see, it is extremely minor. (But… now that I think of it, perhaps this piece was a type of “coming attractions” section. Maybe her next novel will be about Eva? I’d read that story!)
Now, I’ve been holding WAY back with this review because I have to say that reading this was an emotional roller-coaster for me, in the best possible way, and I’ve only touched on the very smallest tip of the iceberg here. Within the first 20% of the book, I was already in tears, and that’s when Annie had just started the strike. From there, Russell builds up the whole vista of this community, with its varied members from across the globe, until we can see every aspect of this town. We can almost taste the tang of unfamiliar foods, feel the bite of cold or weight of heat on our skins, and smell the telltale acrid scent of the copper that they pulled out of the depths of the land with their sweat, and which they paid for with their blood. Then, when Russell gets to the Italian Hall incident, I was bawling like a baby (and I’m tearing up now, just writing about it). For this amazingly told, heartbreaking story of “Big Annie” there is no doubt in my mind that I must wholeheartedly, and strongly recommend it with an unequivocal, and full five out of five stars. I repeat, this is a very important book, not only because we need to learn about Annie, but for all the lessons we can (and should) learn from her struggles and this unfortunate strike. Please read this novel. You’ll not regret it; of that I am totally certain.
Atria Books (an imprint of Simon & Schuster) will release “The Women of Copper Country” by Mary Doria Russell on August 6, 2019. This book is/will be available (via the following affiliate links) from Amazon, Barnes & Noble, Walmart (Kobo) US eBooks and audiobooks, the website eBooks.com, iTunes (iBook or audiobook), Wordery or The Book Depository (both with free worldwide delivery), new or used from Alibris, used from Better World Books (promoting libraries and world literary), or Thriftbooks.com, as well as from an IndieBound store near you. I would like to thank the publishers (and in particular Atria Book’s Associate Director of Publicity, Ariele Fredman) for inviting me to read the ARC of this novel via NetGalley.