Mary Doria Russell’s chronicles the heroine of Michigan miners


The closest most Michiganians get to Copper Country, and its default “capital” of Calumet, is eating a pasty, the folk food of the Western Upper Peninsula.

Even the lowly pasty makes an appearance in Mary Doria Russell’s new book, “The Women of Copper Country,” about the 1913 Copper Strike and its leader, 25-year-old Annie Klobuchar Clemenc, who becomes a tragic heroine of Shakespearian proportion. (The author changed the woman’s name to Clements for the novel.)

In 1913, after another grim death of a miner, Clements is thrust into the role of leading the strike of 9,000 miners who are protesting not only safety conditions, horrendous hours and low wages, but also what is commonly known as the “company town” — where the world’s largest copper company Calumet & Heck (C&H) own virtually everything, including miner’s homes.

The miners were mostly immigrants, especially Finns, Swedes, Italians, Cornishmen, Hungarians and Austrians.

Enter “Big Annie” Clements stage left. Towering over 6 feet, Clements leads daily demonstrations and organizes relief efforts for the miner’s families. Carrying a large American flag, Clements becomes instantly recognizable and is dubbed America’s Joan of Arc.

The cast of characters is as sweeping and unique as the rugged landscape of Copper Country. Russell draws from her in-depth historical research to create composites for outside union organizer Charlie Miller, crusading documentary photographer Michael Sweeney, heartless mine manager James MacNaughton and a cast of thuggish strike-breakers.

As the workers and organizers march toward denouement, Russell creates a dramatic narrative focusing on the interpersonal relationships of the main characters, including an adulterous love affair between Clements and the photographer.

Russell, who has written two acclaimed science fiction books (“The Sparrow” and “Children of God” ), two historical fiction novels on the old West and a murder mystery featuring Doc Holiday, the gun-toting dentist.

Her curiosity about Big Annie began while watching a PBS documentary called “Red Metal: the Copper Strike of 1913.”

“I knew it was a tragic story and one that needed to be told,” Russell said. “Clements was trying to be a heroine. She was childless at a time when most women married in their teens and had children. She had the time, the motive and the opportunity.”

Russell, who has a Ph.D. in behavioral biology, theorizes that because of Clement's height, as a child, she was expected to act as an adult and that led to “everyone expecting her to be responsible as a leader.”

“In retrospect, Annie didn’t always make good decisions and was probably wrong to call the strike when she did,” she said. “Strikers hadn’t built up a strike fund to carry them through the days without pay.”

Russell said for the book, she simplified much of Clements’ tragic life, which included three marriages, three divorces and later a daughter who was struck by a car and lost an arm. Clements was also pregnant during the strikes, a detail often left out of popular biographies.

Coining the term “backbone character,” Russell inserts a 14-year-old girl who becomes a protégé of Clements and invites Mother Jones, a crusader and firebrand, for a visit to Copper Country.

Russell said in doing her initial research, she turned to a mining archaeologist to learn more about hard rock mining in the Upper Peninsula. Russell also converts this knowledge to describe the daily, dangerous drudgery of extracting copper from the mines that descend thousands of feet into the earth.

Russell drives the book to a terrifying conclusion, the oft-chronicled death of 73 in the 1913 Italian Hall Disaster. The majority were children attending a Christmas Eve party, when someone yells “fire,” causing a deadly stampede.

Following the massacre, Clements begins to have doubts about her actions. Russell said at the end, the labor organizer “just wanted to walk away.” Clements moved to Chicago and opened a successful millinery store.

Russell said she completed the first draft of “The Women of Copper County” in 2016, wondering if there would be much of a market for a book on women activists.

“It has come out at a time when the pendulum is swinging,” she said.

During her research, Russell, who lives in Cleveland, took a road trip to Calumet, which she called “a long, long way.”

She will return in October for an appearance at the Calumet Public Library and at the Michigan Technological University in Houghton, where she is scheduled to give a TED Talk on what modern activists can learn from Copper Country.


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