Monday, September 16, 2019

BOOK REVIEW: The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell

I received this book for free from Netgalley. This did not influence my review.

Painful and powerful, The Women of the Copper Country by Mary Doria Russell is engrossing historical fiction. Set in Calumet, Michigan, during the copper mine strikes of 1913, the novel follows the labor leader Big Annie Clements, a twenty-five-year-old woman whose father died in the copper mines and who married a miner because she knew nothing else. Annie has grown tired of watching the men in her community sicken and die in the mines while their wives struggle to raise families on too little pay and less security. When men are injured or killed on the job, their families are out on the street unless they find a family member or friend to take them in.

The mines are incredibly dangerous, especially given the long hours the men work and the introduction of the single-operator drill dubbed “the widow-maker.”

The union is beginning to make inroads, but acting too slowly for Annie. After one particularly gruesome death, Annie leads the women in an effort to convince the men to strike. The outside union organizers feel she jumped the gun. There’s not enough money in the strike fund and the percentage of union members among the miners is not high enough to guarantee support. Yet Annie forges ahead, gaining support, gaining newspaper coverage, and impressing the nation with her fierce determination.

The other side of the coin is James MacNaughton, the local manager of the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company. Presented as so coldly despicable he seems inhuman, he is representative of a type that is all too real. Greedy, self-important, convinced of his own superiority and entitlement, he is utterly devoid of compassion for the men and women suffering in the mining community. MacNaughton knows his company has the resources to wait out the strike. When it lasts long enough to truly inconvenience him, he brings in strike-breakers who unleash violence with tragic consequences.

The book is inspiring and yet, devastating. It’s impossible not to be caught up in Annie’s struggle and to root for her success. At the same time, I kept thinking “this is not going to end well.”

This type of realistic historical fiction is hard to read because it highlights how terribly people treat one another and reinforces how consistently the bad guys still win. However, it also shines a light on the heroes and heroines who fight for justice. It isn’t hard to see which side of the fight is the right one.

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