As a Michigander, I always like learning about my home state’s history. Ever since the 4th grade, I’ve researched various aspects about its past. Nonfiction books like Wild Women of Michigan helped as well as fiction ones like the subject of this review The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell. That novel takes place during the Copper Country Strike of 1913-1914 – an event I barely knew anything about. Not only did it shine light on this mostly forgotten event, but it also created wonderfully effective stories about the people involved.
The Women of the Copper Country (yes, I forgot the second the in the brief review) is about Annie Clements – the American “Joan of Arc.” In 1913, having spent her entire life in the copper-mining town of Calumet, Michigan, she had seen enough of the world to know that it’s unfair. The men risk their lives while working underground each day and have barely enough to put food on the table and clothes on their backs. The women labor at their company houses and dread the news of their husbands and sons not coming home. Annie decides to stand up for herself and the town of Calumet, but many people believe she’s biting off more than she can chew. In her hands lie the miners’ fortunes and their health, her husband’s wrath over her growing independence, and her own reputation as she faces the threat of prison and discovers a forbidden love. As she goes on her journey for justice, Annie slowly discovers how much she’s willing to sacrifice for her own independence and the families of Calumet.
Until now, the only other place where I’ve heard of Annie Clements (or Anna Clemenc) was in the Wild Women of Michigan book. For those who don’t know, she was a labor activist and an active participant in the Copper Country Strike of 1913-1914. I’ve never really heard of this event, but I learned quite a lot. The strike itself lasted nine months, and it was over the safety of the workers, who were getting killed one by one in the mines. I certainly understood the frustrations of the wives. The tragedy near the end tugged me at my heartstrings and saddened me to learn that it truly happened.
For the story itself, it jumped into the walkout so quickly that it felt abrupt. However, once the strike occurred I was all ears. There were times that I wasn’t as emotionally invested because not much was happening, yet once something drastic occurred, my attention was back on.
Now, let’s talk about the main characters. I like Annie Clements. She’s strong, caring, and frustrated about the conditions that the men are in, including that of her abusive husband. She also goes through inner turmoil with how she will be remembered, her feelings for the photographer Mike Sweeney, and the notion of thinking about herself more. I really wanted her to succeed.
Then, there’s James MacNaughton – the general manager of the mining company in Calumet. He’s a man who believes that everyone has their place in society, as in the White Angle-Saxon Protestants in the higher-up positions and the everyone else, especially the non-WASP immigrants, in the lower-class jobs. He even refuses to compromise with the strike leaders. I didn’t care for MacNaughton, but then again, who truly gets invested in villains outside of those who love or love to hate them? Even then, he doesn’t have that vibe. Even the servants hate him.
I also liked the fiction characters like Ava – a Polish 14-year-old girl, who assists Annie with the strike. She falls in love with a boy whose father was killed in a mining accident that became one of the impetuses for the walkout. However, over time, she realizes that she has to figure out what she wants, and marriage may not seem all that attractive to her.
Russell does a great job introducing the main characters through their actions. For example, readers are introduced to Annie as she makes pastries for her boarders – three young Italian immigrants who work alongside her husband. It shows how much she cares about the wellbeing of others. In addition, the thoughts and beliefs of James MacNaughton are uncovered when he reads a newspaper in his mansion. Russell clearly sets up that he’s going to be our antagonist. It’s certainly a better way to establish this than yelling or having them beat the living crap out of other characters.
Another thing that Russell does a great job with is the research. Her author’s note explains what was really true about the 9-month walkout and what was fiction. I was shocked to find out what the former was. One can clearly tell that she put in a lot of effort in the research because it paints a harsh, bleak, but hopeful atmosphere during the strike that took place in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula (UP). I even asked some of the book club ladies, who were from the UP, about how the book represents the area. They all said that that portrayal was accurate.
Cassandra Campbell is back as she narrates this book. Her vocal performance is good. She distinguishes characters of various ethnicities very well. However, she doesn’t differentiate characters of both genders. The male ones have a slightly lower voice, while the women tend to have her regular one even though Ava is voiced a little higher and more excited for a chunk of it. Out of the audiobooks that I’ve listened to that she has narrated, this is one of her weaker performances, but it was still entertaining.
To summarize, The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell is a good fictional account of the Copper Strike of 1913-1914 in Calumet, Michigan. The characters are well defined, and I was invested in the story for the most part. Above all, it enabled me to research more about the strike. I would recommend it to those who love historical fiction, especially about strong female characters, labor disputes, and Michigan. As a Michigander, I’m glad that I picked up this book.
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