Fighting the man, 1913 style

Big 4+ review: The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell

r/suggestmeabook: I want a meticulously told history of the 1913 copper mine strike in Calumet, Michigan, focusing on the woman called the American Joan of Arc.

Movie rating: PG-13

Pages: 339

Publisher: Atria

Progessive era historical fiction

From the publisher: In July 1913, twenty-five-year-old Annie Clements has seen enough of the world to know that it’s unfair. She’s spent her whole life in the mining town of Calumet, Michigan, where men risk their lives for meager salaries—and have barely enough to put food on the table for their families. The women labor in the houses of the elite, and send their husbands and sons deep underground each day, dreading the fateful call of the company man telling them their loved ones aren’t coming home. So, when Annie decides to stand up for the entire town of Calumet, nearly everyone believes she may have taken on more than she is prepared to handle.

Mary Doria Russell has a wonderful afterward explaining what is and isn’t historically accurate, which I always appreciate, and it reinforced my initial impression that this was a meticulously researched book. On the spectrum from narrative history to costume drama, this would be more weighted toward the historical, but it doesn’t shade into feeling like docudrama as some novels can.

They believed their daddies’ wealth was ordained by God and nature, and the Supreme Court told them they were right. A man who accepted a job was servant to a master, that’s what the court said. If he took a wage, he could be treated any way that master pleased.

Mary Doria Russell, The Women of Copper Country

Perhaps that’s because Russell does a great job of making Anna and her main assistant, Eva, so approachable and sympathetic. Here is a woman who takes on a monumental challenge: organizing the women of a copper mining town, where everything is owned or controlled by the mining company. Yet she’s fully human and flawed—she never comes off as someone who is somehow divinely appointed or a creature unlike us mere mortals.

Women who now refuse to tell another generation of children, This is all you can hope for. This is all your labor is worth. This is all your lives are worth.

Mary Doria Russell, The Women of Copper Country

Given that there’s very little about Annie in her own words, Russell has done a great job of constructing a person from the facts known about her: she was approximately six feet tall and reached that height early, her father was also a copper miner who was originally from Slovenia, her parents died when she was young, and she married a 30-year-old man when she was 19. Extrapolating that mix in the context of the period, and she’s come up with a convincing version of this young woman.

With her big plans and her unshakable determination, her beautiful smile and her relentless bustling, young Mrs. Clements is indeed convinced that far-away shareholders can be shamed into acting decently. You have to love that, he thinks. She hasn’t been beaten down yet. She’s not cynical.

Mary Doria Russell, The Women of Copper Country

There are many characters that are only part of the story for short sections, but are memorable, particularly the governor and the judge he sends to try to settle the strike. Their interactions were amusing and showed that not all of the elite was on the side of the corporation. Another is the photographer, Michael Sweeney, who is fictional.

He is deeply suspicious of those who are hostile to compromise of any kind. Given his own conversation with James MacNaughton, he is inclined to be sympathetic toward the frustration such a man’s employees might feel.

Mary Doria Russell, The Women of Copper Country

And because of him and the role of photography in the book, I decided to look through historical photos to put in the banner and kind of lost my mind. Many aren’t dated, but are from the general period. Any photo specifically strike-oriented is from the 1913 strike. The photo with the women in black? The one carrying the big American flag is Annie. The office and portrait? MacNaughton. If you want to see more relevant photos, the best source I found was the Copper Country Historical Images Database from Michigan Tech.

The character that gave me some pause was the CEO of the copper company, James MacNaughton. He’s just completely irredeemable. However, in the author’s note, Russell does a good job of explaining that he really was that guy. His attitudes about his immigrant workers and his complete indignation about their needs, though, I’ve heard echoed by smallish business owners (in the low seven figures) about other racial groups—or millennials, so those guys are still around.

The Finns are the worst. And the Slavs! Croats and Slovenians. Anarchists, half of them. Socialists. Europe is gleefully exporting its wretched refuse to America. How long, he wonders, before the entire American workforce is undermined and replaced by nihilists and hoodlums?

Mary Doria Russell, The Women of Copper Country

From time to time, it does start sounding like an apologetic for the strikers, which was fine with me because I found all of it stirring and inspirational. However, my personal belief is that more people should realize just how much exploitation of workers there was (and still is) without government or union intervention, so it might be good for those who tend to discount the value of either to offset unbridled capitalism. There’s probably more danger of people thinking that’s all in the past. The efforts to discredit strikers and other people protesting oppression are still in use today.

Capital starts things, but labor brings them into the world. Our men wouldn’t have jobs without the capitalists but without labor, capital is stillborn, dead in the womb. Without labor, there is no return on investments.

Mary Doria Russell, The Women of Copper Country

It’s only a small note in the book, but I was really taken with the reference to Bread and Roses. I’d seen it before in some reference to a worker’s movement in England, but it hit me harder the way that Russell described Annie’s interpretation of the demand. It’s easy to gloss over the phrase, but it’s pretty profound in terms of how those in power view what labor is entitled to versus what labor believes it has earned. The contrast between the lives of those who profit by underpaid labor, with their frivolities, and the bare existence of those workers makes it clear that the powerful somehow feel their lives are worth more and that it is good and just that the cards are stacked in their favor.

You aren’t on strike so your children can have a better life, you’re fighting so that they can have a good life! You aren’t on strike for a better wage, you’re fighting for a good wage—a living wage! You aren’t on strike for less danger in the pits, you’re fighting for safe working conditions!

Mary Doria Russell, The Women of Copper Country

All in all, I quite enjoyed the thoughtful reconstruction of historical figures, some with only scant evidence of their personalities, particularly Annie Clements/Anna Clemenc, whom history should not have forgotten.


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