Award-winning and #1 New York Times bestselling author Mary Doria Russell joins the National Writers Series in Traverse City to discuss her book “The Women of the Copper Country,” recently named the 2021-22 Great Michigan Read.
This free virtual event takes place via Zoom on Wednesday, May 26 at 7 p.m. ET; pre-registration is required. Russell’s book is available at Horizon Books with a 20% NWS discount and at other area bookstores. The guest host for this Northern Michigan event is Interlochen Public Radio’s Kendra Carr.
Russell had just wrapped up her previous book, “Epitaph,” set in the mining town of Tombstone, Arizona, so the story about striking copper miners caught her eye. Then she met 25-year-old miner’s wife “Big Annie” Clemenc (who became Annie Clements in the novel), the towering 6’3” woman who started the strike, and James MacNaughton, the WASP-supremacist uber-capitalist who refused to bow to any workers’ demands.
Rarely do the Writing Gods deliver you that kind of inspiration all at once, but after mentioning the documentary on Facebook and that there might be a book here, one email helped seal the deal: “It’s just dumb luck,” Russell says, “and I would not have gotten on with it if I hadn’t gotten that email from [my friend] saying, ‘My great grandfather was the last person to die in the mine before the strike.’”
After a career spent writing about alien worlds, Nazi doctors and Wild West outlaws, Mary Doria Russell was headed to the Upper Peninsula of Michigan.
It’s not an area that regularly becomes the site of historical novels, let alone written by writers of the caliber of Russell, whose debut novel, “The Sparrow,” won accolades like the Arthur C. Clarke Award and the British Science Fiction Association Award. And yet her visit to Calumet as part of her research paid dividends.
“I was surprised at how much is still there,” Russell says. “There are big sandstone buildings, about half of the housing for the miners is still there, and you could really get a feel for what this place was like in its heyday. That was very important to me—to get a notion for what it was like back then.”
Russell also ventured into mines that dated back to the late 1800s to get to know what being underground was like, what emerging into the sun was like, what you would have heard—or not heard. Because so many trees were clear cut for lumber, there would be no birds chirping anywhere around the Keweenaw Peninsula, and the isolation of Calumet would be almost overwhelming, even in the remote U.P.
“If you’re writing about Paris everybody knows what Paris is. If you’re writing about Rome, everybody knows what the Colosseum looks like,” Russell says. “If you’re writing about the U.P., very few people have got a picture in their heads of what it’s like up there—so my job is to place it.”
There are many themes in the book that resonate in the modern-day: the treatment of workers and immigrants, the role of women in society, and how people use advancing technology in photography and imagery to make people feel something about a struggle or an event, instead of just knowing it’s happening.
“I wanted to show how important photography was—that you didn’t have to stand still for five minutes anymore,” Russell says. “It was something where you could take a picture on the street and develop it and have it in the newspaper that evening. So that was a huge difference in the way that people perceive the world.”
In addition to being an interpretation of historical events, “Copper Country” was almost a very different kind of book. “I almost thought that [it] was going to become a [young adult] book. I think it’s still appropriate for people that age, but there’s a lot of depths there as well.”
That’s thanks largely to one of the book’s fictional characters: a 14-year-old girl named Eva, who showcases the rapid changes in the life of a young adult in a town where, on average, one adult dies each week from life in the mines.
“I almost always have a 14-year-old in my books because 14-year-olds are just really interesting human beings,” Russell says. “They are approaching adulthood, but they are not adults. They have a real sense of right and wrong, and they’re outraged by much of what they see around them—and with good reason. That simplicity and directness of thought rarely survives into adulthood.”
“And, in fact, I think part of adulthood is realizing that very little is that simple.”
Eva changes throughout the book from a small-town girl who only wants to get married to someone who becomes a warrior for the labor movement thanks to real-life labor figures like Mother Jones and Eva Bloor, who also appear in the novel. The real-life capitalist who they fight against also gives us something interesting: After seven novels, James MacNaughton is not just Russell’s worst villain—he’s her first true villain.
“He’s the only villain that I’ve been able to write. I found very little to sympathize with. I’ve [written] a lot of people who did really bad things … and I try to make you understand how somebody [can] get to the point that he thinks what he’s doing is the right thing. But with MacNaughton, I just portrayed him accurately. And an accurate portrayal is of a guy who is … just an ***hole.”
What happens over the six months we spend in Calumet watching the union face off against the capitalists remains for readers of the book, and it’s a dark, tragic tale. But as with any good story about the U.P., you’ll be glad to know that at least pasties do play a role … and believe it or not, Russell is actually a pasty baker from way back.
“When I was a graduate student and didn’t have enough money to go out to lunch every day, I would make a big tray of pasties and freeze them and use them all week,” she says. Knowing that, it’s almost impossible to think that her writing wouldn’t someday take her to Copper Country.