It’s the end of November and I met my reading goal for this year already! I committed to reading twenty books and have finished them all. With a month left, I will surely read one or two more, telling me I need to increase my goal for 2021.
Throughout the course of this year, I’ve reviewed a few of the books that I read. When I blog about all the books, near the end of the year, my descriptions will be brief and give a general recommendation of a good, great or fair read. I realize taste in books is subjective and not all my picks will appeal to all readers, but sometimes it is nice to have a source of information about the story held between the pages. I will tell you that my taste is wide and varied, so you can expect a little bit of this and a little bit of that as far as genres go. Enough about future posts!
One of my favorite genres is historical fiction. And, I believe one of the greatest authors writing these books today is Mary Doria Russell. I’ve read several of her novels over the years and none have been a disappointment. On my last trip to the library, I was able to borrow the newest story she shares in book form, entitled, The Women of Copper Country (2019).
This novel is about a labor strike at the turn of the 20th century (1913) in the Upper Peninsula (UP) of Michigan and the women who spearheaded the union. Yes, you read that right – women! According to Russell (whose historical research is immaculate, bar none) the area of Michigan near Calumet had the largest copper deposits in the world at the time of this story!
Without revealing spoilers, the town is “owned” by the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company Superintendent, Mr. James MacNaughton, who is ruthless in his zeal for money making. He is also adept at pushing down the efforts of the miners and their families in their attempts at earning a living wage.
As you can imagine, the mines are dangerous. Even in our time, stories of miners being seriously injured or killed on the job exist. It was much more prevalent in 1913 when barely a week went by that the townspeople of Calumet did not have to attend a funeral.
Russell is adept at telling a captivating story on what could be a relatively bland and boring subject. Her character development is engrossing and there is a limited enough number of people featured in the book that you get to know them all. The novel is not for the faint of heart, as there are a fair amount of sad events that occur, especially in the later half.
But, it also has elements of resilience, hard work, and perseverance. In truth, I found it inspiring. The women, two characters, in particular, are ahead of their time! Many of the characters are immigrants, specifically those imported to Michigan to work in the mines for a less than a livable wage. They were just happy to finally be in America and were amenable to the whims of their employers, whether it be factories or the mine. Several of the main characters are Finnish. Calumet was a land of many languages at the turn of the century. You can read about their struggles and their triumphs all in one story through the details the author provides.
There are a couple of other thoughts I had regarding this story. One is that we’ve been to “copper country” in Michigan. Years ago, my middle son went to two engineering summer camps at MTU – Michigan Technological University. It’s about 8 hours from us, located on the UP in the town of Houghton. Houghton still has a copper mine shaft visible as you drive into town. Although the story takes place in Calumet, Houghton is mentioned several times in the novel. It was engrossing to be able to actually envision where the story setting was. Early in the book, Russell writes of the main character making a pasty (pronunciation rhymes with nasty) for her husband’s lunch in the mine. If you have ever been to the UP, you’ll see signs for pasties all over the roads. They are a hardy type of meat and vegetable “hand-pie” that has roots in Cornwall, England. To read more about the history of the pasty, click here.
Also mentioned in the book was the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire of 1911. The miners and, especially, their loved ones were cognisant of this well-known tragedy. The loss of life in this event was due, largely, to unsafe work conditions, The Calumet miners were also working in unsafe conditions, thus experiencing a similar loss of life. Theirs was not an all-encompassing event, but rather a steady stream of mangled and dead men brought up from the darkness below the earth. It seems the families expected their men to die and were resigned to it before the women of Copper Country took action.
All three of my boys participated in National History Day while in middle school, and one electively repeated the experience in high school. They all went to the state competition and one went on to Nationals in 2011, placing tenth! During this time, I repeatedly saw poster presentations on the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory Fire. This historical labor-industrial accident seems to fit many themes designated by the National History Day oversight committee. But, it took place in New York City, which is far removed from the experience of mid-western youth and history. It might be more relatable to research something closer to home – close enough to visit, in fact!
As I read this book, I all I could think of was the fact that the labor strike in the Calumet copper mines would make a wonderful National History Day project. Surely, someone has explored this topic. Maybe, with Russell’s help, more of our youth will become familiar with the history of labor relations and women in leadership roles closer to home and in a historical sense. If you have a student participating in the National History Day competition, I would highly recommend reading Russell’s book, as well as delving into the actual events of the Calumet Copper Mine in 1913. Your student won’t be disappointed!
And, even if you’re not a student of history, I’d highly recommend The Women of Copper Country (2019) by Mary Doria Russell.
Carol, you certainly write a compelling review! I enjoy historical fiction when the mood strikes, but –as you said–stories like this one tell of a hard life. I’ll give that book a pass, though, but I do enjoy a good pasty!
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Thanks for reading the post Tim and for your comments. I agree that it’s sometimes hard to read about a hard life. I have to be in the right mood. Then, it makes me grateful for the life I have and the people who have come before me to make it so! Stay well!