No matter your taste in books, I could probably recommend a Mary Doria Russell book to you that you would love. The Sparrow is my favorite science fiction book, but this badass woman with the fiercest intellect around can write just about anything. Her historical fiction is nearly unmatched in depth of research and attention to detail. Once again, Russell has crafted a gritty and memorable tribute to real-life heroes who walked this Earth. The women and men in this book made it possible for the workers of today to fight for fairness and actually win.
The Women of the Copper Country is a fictionalized account of the story of Anna Klobuchar Clements, otherwise known as Big Annie. In 1913, Annie Clements earned the title of “America’s Joan of Arc” for her role in leading a strike against a large and powerful copper mining company in Michigan, Calumet & Hecla. The novel pits Annie up against the villainous James MacNaughton, her nemesis in both this fictional work and in the historical record. Russell’s novel is a very raw and real portrayal of the plight of the striking worker in the early 1900’s, as well as that of their wives and mothers who fought to keep food on the table. Most importantly, it’s the rarely told tribute to the women of the labor movement, those who risked their own health and safety to ensure their sons and grandsons wouldn’t befall the same fate as their fathers and husbands.
In every case, the strength of one of Russell’s works of historical fiction is her meticulous research. While much of Annie’s life on the page is fictionalized, Russell offers us a visceral and intimate glimpse into the life of the real Annie. She perfectly captures her resolve, integrity, and her difficult moments of self-doubt and turmoil. Many characters are either composites of real individuals or are entirely fictionalized, but their sole purpose is to provide a foundation for us to better understand Annie and her impact on the labor movement, as well as the impact of all women, whose role in progressive social change throughout history is often drastically understated, if not ignored completely.
One of the most interesting aspects of this novel is Annie’s tumultuous relationship with her husband, Joe Clements, an abusive drunk who doesn’t support either Annie’s work as a union leader or even the strike itself. Annie is torn between this urge to remain loyal to her husband as society dictates or to remain loyal to her personal convictions and moral obligations. Would we be where we are today if it weren’t for women brave enough to tell their short-sighted husbands to shove their opinions where the sun doesn’t shine? That’s a resounding no. Thankfully, there are enough fabulous and brave men in this book that one doesn’t have to worry about it seeming “anti-men,” which some people seem to worry about, and usually for silly reasons.
This novel also contains some beautiful cameos of other real heroes of the labor movement, including Mary Harris “Mother” Jones, whose visit to Calumet in support of the strike really did occur in August of 1913. Jones, while featured very shortly in The Women of the Copper Country, is one of the more memorable characters of the book, her fiery and plucky spirit reinvigorating a movement that has fallen on hard times and hangs on the precipice of failure. Like the strikers, readers find themselves wanting more of her but having to trudge on alone, encouraged by the strength that lingers in her wake.
More than anything, this work of historical fiction is fiercely and depressingly relevant in today’s political climate. It is Russell’s most politically charged work to date, and it comes at a very good time. We find ourselves at the close of a pandemic, when many people have grown weary of busting their asses for pennies for employers who neither care about their physical or mental well-being nor whether their wages can even cover a month’s rent. Most have forgotten or scoff at the sacrifices of the ancestors of the labor movement. The word union is still spat out like a curse word by those whose forbearers poured more dirt on the bodies of the miners who worked for mere pennies until unsafe conditions brought about their early deaths, as well as those of their fathers and grandfathers. Same shit, different decade.
These same people feel history shouldn’t actually be taught in our schools, because it will show our children that history is full of ugliness, greed, and prejudice. You can’t stop yourself from repeating a mistake you don’t remember, and a society that covers up its ills will repeat them over and over again with different victims. The cycle will merely continue forever. Censorship and suppression only bring more trauma, so if a school board tells you not to put a book in your child’s hands go out and buy a damn copy because that’s a book they should read. With that in mind, if you Virginia folk want to see what all the fuss is about, Beloved by Toni Morrison is on sale on Amazon, and everyone should read it. Get your copy here. For a comprehensive list of the books some people say you shouldn’t read, see the American Library Association’s Office for Intellectual Freedom’s website. Every one of them has something to teach you.
I realize I haven’t focused as much on the actual book as I usually do, but this is an extremely important read about a unique and specific moment in America’s storied past. It has the beautiful, effortless prose you’d expect from a Mary Doria Russell novel and characters who will leave their mark on you. Some books are good but you forget them pretty soon after putting them down. You won’t forget this authentic story, and you sure as hell won’t forget Big Annie, the 6’1″ angel with her flag held high and her voice raised above the crowd. If you are looking for a great work of historical fiction that is of the utmost relevance in today’s age, look no further than The Women of the Copper Country.
- “Anna Clemenc” Upper Peninsula Wiki. https://michigansup.fandom.com/wiki/Anna_Clemenc Accessed Oct 29, 2021.
- “Labor’s Patron Saint & Her Words of Wisdom.” The Laborist. https://labor.ist/labors-patron-saint-her-words-of-wisdom/ May 19, 2020.
Published August 6, 2019 by Atria Books. ISBN 1982109580. Hardcover. 352 pages.