When Mihaela’s family came to Michigan’s Upper Peninsula from Croatia when she was just 11, she thought it was just for a little while, to visit her papa. He had arrived earlier to work in the copper mines. But there were many surprises awaiting her in the U.P. Barbara Carney-Coston tells the story of her own family’s immigration to Michigan in her new historical fiction novel for younger readers, To the Copper Country: Mihaela’s Journey (Wayne State University Press, 2017).
“Mihaela’s papa had made the journey two years before to work in the copper mines so that he could send home much needed money," Carney- Coston says. "A painful eye disease became a problem. He consulted local doctors but they weren't able to cure him.”
Mihaela’s mother, an experienced herbalist, decided to pack up her family and join her husband on the Keweenaw Peninsula. She also thought it would be for only a short time, until she had cured her husband’s eye problems. But that short stay turned into a lifetime.
Packing up a basket of herbs, she and the children arrived to find a boarding house full of copper miners. Mihaela’s mother was expected to cook and clean for the boarders. She wasn't very happy about her new status, at first. But with the help of her daughter, the family bonds with the boarders as well as other people in the community members, and makes the house a home.
In writing about the herbal remedies in the book, Carney-Coston says, “I did a lot of research on that. I researched herbs that were available in both areas: Croatia and the Keweenaw. There are similarities in the terrain.”
The author also visited the abandoned copper mines, some of which are now open for tours, in and around Calumet, the small town in the Keweenaw where her ancestors lived. She also went to the Keweenaw National Historical Park.
“You can really feel the ghosts of that era when you visit these places,” she says.
While To the Copper Country is written for young readers, it is equally enjoyable for adults. It describes Michigan history as well as the lives and problems of the immigrants. The book includes images from Michaela’s time.
Barbara Carney-Coston is an award-winning media producer, writer, and educator. She began her career as a teacher and then worked in educational television, producing programs for public television, The Learning Channel, and private clients. She produced web features for National Geographic, including one about the Underground Railroad that won a Parents’ Choice award and was designated a "Notable Website" by the American Library Association. A native of Detroit, Carney-Coston spent many family vacations in northern Michigan. She now lives near Washington, D.C.
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