Disappear into the U.P.’s Copper Mines this Summer
Author Maria Doria Russell revives tale of U.P. labor leader Big Annie Clemenc
By Anna Faller | May 22, 2021
For acclaimed author Mary Doria Russell, moral dilemma is a must when it comes to good writing. “I like gray areas,” she says, “and characters who do the right thing, and then find out it wasn’t as simple as they thought.”
In her newest novel, “The Women of the Copper Country,” that “gray area” is the name of the game. Set in Michigan’s Upper Peninsula during the mining industry-boom of the 1910s, “The Women of the Copper Country” surrounds the infamous Annie Klobuchar-Clemenc and her year-long crusade against corporate injustice.
“People always ask writers, ‘Where do you get your ideas?’” Russell says. “All of my books are different, so the story of how I come to write each one is different.” In the case of “The Women of the Copper Country,” the idea came “out of left field,” so to speak. “One afternoon, I sat down at three o’clock to wait for a four o’clock ballgame,” says Russell, “and while I was waiting, I started flipping through the channels. That’s when I came across the PBS documentary “Red Metal,” which is about the 1913 miner’s strike in the copper country of Michigan’s Upper Peninsula.”
At the center of that strike was Annie Clemenc.
Hailed as the U.P.’s own “Joan of Arc,” Clemenc was a walking contradiction of the era’s expectations. She was 25 when the strike began, and although she was married, she had yet to bear children — an anomaly among most women of her age. She also happened to be 6 feet, 3 inches tall. Add to that the lines of male miners she led in the fight against their employers, and “Big Annie” Clemenc was hard to miss.
“[She stood] head and shoulders above the crowd,” says Russell. “And I thought, ‘A miner’s strike with a woman out front? How did that work?’”
In a nutshell, Clemenc — and likely the rest of the copper country’s less vocal women — had simply had enough. “I think she was tired of the funerals,” says Russell. At the time of the strike, an average of one miner per week was killed on the clock. “That’s killed,” she adds. “Not merely crippled and discarded.”
But the real straw that broke Clemenc’s back, suspects Russell, was the death of a miner named Solomon Kivisto, a non-union worker and the last man to die in the mines prior to the protest. “Given the timing of Solomon Kivisto’s death, I believe that when Annie Clemenc heard about his accident, something snapped in her,” says Russell. “I think [she was] tired of waiting to find out who would be widowed this week and destitute the next.”
So, in July of 1913, Clemenc, accompanied by the Women’s Auxiliary of the Western Federation of Miners Local 15, set out to do what their men could not: incite a general strike against the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company, the largest and most powerful copper mining company in the world.
“[As] I’m sitting there in my living room, waiting for the ballgame,” says Russell, “my first inkling that I was being drawn in was when I thought, ‘Whoa! I’ve got a heroine!’” But a proper protagonist must have an opponent.
Enter James MacNaughton. Also known as the Czar of the Copper Country, MacNaughton was the third and last-known president of the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company. He also shared in the then commonly held attitude that too many immigrants might undermine American values and, as such, took it upon himself to “civilize” his predominantly immigrant workforce.
“He acknowledged their effort, but did not trust them,” says Russell. “He was very concerned that they would be susceptible to outside agitators who were attempting to organize the mine workers, and he vowed that grass would grow in the streets of Calumet before he recognized their union.”
“Benevolent” dictator that he was, MacNaughton was also a man of his word. “[He] never gave an inch to the employment of Calumet and Hecla,” says Russell, “and during the strike he did whatever he could to kill the union.” Several months and an army of strikebreakers later, MacNaughton ultimately overwhelmed Clemenc’s revolt. “He beat the union,” says Russell, “and he shrugged off the price that women and children paid for his triumph.”
As for “Big Annie”? When the strike finally ended in 1914, Annie Clemenc’s name was seemingly cast away alongside her efforts; and she never spoke a word of her part in the protest. So when the headlines about her and her role as a labor activist were replaced by those promoting preparation for the war, Clemenc, “like so many other powerhouse women of the early labor movement,” says Russell, “was largely forgotten.”
Her story, however, certainly wasn’t, and neither were those of the women who marched alongside her. “The literary gods don’t drop a story like that into a writer’s lap unless it needs to be told,” says Russell. “This novel is a celebration of their legacy and a vow to carry on their work.”
Still, the past all too often sets future precedent, and The Women of the Copper Country is no exception. “People often dismiss the past by saying, ‘That’s history,’” says Russell. “But one of the things that a book like “The Women of the Copper Country” can do is demonstrate that some things never change.” Fast forward a full century, and we still face much of the same injustice — xenophobia, for example, and financial inequity — that the women of the copper country rebelled against to abolish.
“But we can learn from the women and the men and children who marched,” says Russell. “It is our turn now to know our place in history to stand up for what’s right the way the ordinary women of the copper country did in 1913. Now it’s our turn to carry the flag.”
Meet the Interviewer: Kendra Carr
Broadcast and performing artist Kendra Carr is the host of Interlochen Public Radio’s “All Things Considered” and “Our Global Neighborhood.” A graduate of Cottey College’s Theatre Arts program, Carr has appeared on countless stages, both in West Michigan and Traverse City, including the Old Town Playhouse. Carr also holds an undergraduate degree in Special Education from Western Michigan University, and prior to pursuing a broadcast career, worked with Oceana’s Home Partnership, focusing on emergency re-housing. She transitioned to radio in 2016, where she began her broadcast career with Bayview Broadcasting in Ludington. She’s been with IPR since 2019.
Experience the Event
Critically acclaimed author Mary Doria Russell will join the National Writers Series for a free, virtual event at 7pm Wednesday, May 26, to discuss her seventh novel, “The Women of the Copper Country.” The book was originally published in April 2019 and is available for preorder at Horizon Books (with a 20 percent NWS discount). Guest host for the event is IPR host and performance artist, Kendra Carr. Register free here.