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The Women of the Copper Country

Review

The Women of the Copper Country

Based on a woman known as “America’s Joan of Arc,” Mary Doria Russell’s latest historical novel brings to life a sad chapter in our country’s labor struggles.

The year is 1913, and the setting is the company town of Calumet, Michigan, where poor miners work long and dangerous hours below ground to bring copper ore to the surface, with no bargaining power to change their plight. A rich man named James MacNaughton runs the largest copper company in the world with precision and absolutely no regard for the largely immigrant workers and their families. He sees what is happening in the western copper mines, where union organizers are gaining a foothold, and he’s determined that it won’t happen in his town. 

"...a good old-fashioned novel with straightforward heroes and villains.... [E]ven though the events described take place more than a hundred years ago, unfortunately you’ll recognize some of the same forces still at work today."

What he hasn’t reckoned on is the determination of Annie Clements, the extraordinarily tall daughter of Slovenian immigrants. “Big Annie,” as everyone calls her, is married to a miner named Joe, one of the few men in town taller than she is. Like many housewives, she earns extra money doing laundry and cleaning for the rich households to supplement the pittance her husband makes in the mines. Her father had told the teenaged Annie that perhaps she was tall so that she could see farther than others. In any case, she cannot unsee the injustices piled on the workers and their families, who live in company-owned homes and shop in company-owned stores.

When union organizer Charlie Miller comes to town, he is amazed and somewhat alarmed by this tall woman who carries a heavy American flag through the streets, leading peaceful parades of women, children and, increasingly, some of the male workers. Charlie thinks it’s too early to strike --- they don’t have a strike fund built up, and MacNaughton won’t even recognize a union’s existence, much less sit down with workers’ leaders to negotiate. But Annie is indefatigable. Soon representatives of the press, including a photographer named Michael Sweeney, make the long journey to the Upper Peninsula to document the conflict. 

As summer turns to fall and fall to winter, Sweeney’s interest in Annie blossoms into something more romantic. But Joe keeps a close eye on his wife, and Annie, who has felt the back of his hand more than once, tries not to give him any reason for jealousy. The strike grinds on, and MacNaughton, through a reluctant governor, enlists the state National Guard to disrupt the peaceful marchers. When that isn’t effective, he hires some thugs from out of town. In the end, though, it’s not the thugs who finish off the strike, but an unforeseen tragedy of epic proportions. 

Mary Doria Russell has given us a good old- fashioned novel with straightforward heroes and villains. You’ll find yourself rooting for Annie and despising MacNaughton, the tension building with each page turned. And even though the events described take place more than a hundred years ago, unfortunately you’ll recognize some of the same forces still at work today.

Reviewed by Eileen Zimmerman Nicol on August 16, 2019

The Women of the Copper Country
by Mary Doria Russell

  • Publication Date: August 6, 2019
  • Genres: Fiction, Historical Fiction
  • Hardcover: 352 pages
  • Publisher: Atria Books
  • ISBN-10: 1982109580
  • ISBN-13: 9781982109585