Art Beat: The Women Of Copper Country
Michigan residents are invited to join in reading and discussing The Women of the Copper Country (Atria Books, 2019).
The book is Mary Doria Russell’s riveting account of Annie Clements as she stood up for the miners and their families during the 1913 copper strikes in Calumet, Michigan.
The historical novel is Michigan Humanities’ choice for the 2021 "Great Michigan Read."
“It’s a time when the Calumet and Hecla Mining Corporation owned the City of Calumet and all the land,” Russell says. “It leased the land to all the commercial businesses, the churches, and everything else. It was a company town. It was the most prosperous and consistently profitable of many mining corporations that had opened up in the Keweenaw Peninsula.”
Located near the center of the Keweenaw, a small peninsula branching up into Lake Superior in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula, Calumet was once considered as a potential state capital. Russell says it was known as “the Paris of Michigan.” But the lives of those who mined the copper could become cruel. Workers went deep below the surface into the dark mines for long hours. And when tunnels occasionally caved in, or equipment gave out, many died. Pay and living conditions were poor. When the mining company brought in a one-man drill system, adding to the risk and difficulty of the work, miners went on strike.
“The strike was led by a 25-year-old woman named Annie Clements, and she was my entry into the story,” Russell says. “How does a woman like that happen? She’s six-foot-three at a time when ladies were supposed to be dainty. She’s out in front of these daily parades — they called them parades, not marches — with this gigantic flag, she’s keeping everybody’s spirits up. Wow! How does she happen?”
Russell did years of research, including interviews with descendants of miners. Her interest in the topic began when she saw the PBS documentary Red Metal. She keeps her novel close to the facts, changing only a few side characters to consolidate storylines.
One of the events Russell covers in her book is the tragedy of December 24, 1913.
“There was a party that was given for the union children,” Russell says. “It was in the Italian Hall, on the second floor of that great big banquet hall. It was above a tavern and a grocery store, and there were 23 or 24 steps up to the second floor. It was a very steep stairway. There were about 800 people in the hall. The Women’s Auxiliary had put together little toys and candies for the kids. At some point in the afternoon, someone came to the top of that stairway and yelled, 'Fire!'”
There was no fire. But those in the hall panicked and ran for the stairway. Children slipped and fell, causing more children to fall on top of them. Seventy-three people were killed in the stampede, almost all of them children. It was suspected that the person who yelled 'Fire!' was someone sent by the mining company in to punish the workers and their families for unionizing.
Russell's novel was selected for the "Great Michigan Read" by seven regional committees representing all parts of Michigan. Mary Doria Russell is the New York Times bestselling and award-winning author of The Sparrow, Children of God, A Thread of Grace, Dreamers of the Day, Doc, and Epitaph. She has a PhD in biological anthropology and lives in Lyndhurst, Ohio.
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