This reading group guide for The Women of the Copper Country includes an introduction, discussion questions, ideas for enhancing your book club, and a Q&A with author Mary Doria Russell. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.Introduction
Join our mailing list!
Get our latest staff recommendations, award news and digital catalog links right to your inbox.
In The Women of the Copper Country
, which opens in July 1913, twenty-five-year-old Annie Clements has seen enough of the world to know that it is unfair. She’s spent her whole life in the copper-mining town of Calumet, Michigan, where men risk their lives for meager salaries—and have barely enough to put food on the table and clothes on their backs. The women labor in the houses of the elite and send their husbands and sons deep underground each day, dreading the fateful call of the company man telling them their loved ones aren’t coming home. When Annie decides to stand up for herself, and the entire town of Calumet, nearly everyone believes she may have taken on more than she is prepared to handle.
In Annie’s 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. On her fierce quest for justice, Annie will discover just how much she is willing to sacrifice for her own independence and the families of Calumet.Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. The prologue begins with the line “The dream is always simple. The memory never is.” How do you think this opening sets up the rest of the novel?
2. Annie Klobuchar Clements was known as “America’s Joan of Arc.” Despite living centuries apart, how do you think these women were similar? How were they different? Do you think this is an apt moniker?
3. Mr. McNaughton reads the newspaper, summarizing the major issues of the day, and also begins to contemplate the state of the American workforce. He thinks, of immigration, “How much of the Old World’s excess population can America absorb?” What does this say about attitudes about immigration and xenophobia during this time?
4. Annie’s height is frequently mentioned throughout the novel, often in regards to finding a husband, and “she admitted to six foot one when she finally married at eighteen.” Why do you think such emphasis is placed on her height?
5. Chapters open with a quotation from Shakespeare’s Romeo and Juliet
. What do you think this represents?
6. At the meeting with Charlie Miller and her fellow women, Annie says “we speak different languages, but we always find a way to talk, don’t we?” How do these women of diverse backgrounds and languages band together throughout the novel?
7. A number of chapters are told from the point of view of Mr. MacNaughton, creating an interesting juxtaposition between his work and that of the miners. How does his life and perspective better illuminate the miners’ struggle?
8. When Mike tells Annie his personal story, he speaks about both photographer Jacob Riis and the Orphan Trains. Do these references give you a better sense of the time period? Are there similarities between Sweeney’s life and the conditions in Calumet?
9. After taking Annie’s photo, comparing her to Joan of Arc, Sweeney mutters, “And that’s the one for the history books.” How was Annie’s public persona and legacy shaped by both the press and those who knew her?
10. The novel makes clear that Annie’s involvement with the union and strike strains her marriage to Joe. How do their perceptions of each other change over the course of the novel?
11. What do you think is the greatest effect of Mother Jones’s visit to Calumet?
12. How does the riot change things for each of the major characters in the novel?
13. Consider the various characters’ reactions to the Italian Hall disaster. What do these reactions say about each of them?Enhance Your Book Club
1. Get out a map and trace the Keweenaw Peninsula region of Upper Michigan, which is still called the Copper Country. What strikes you most about it?
2. A number of other historical women are mentioned in this novel. Research other activists including Joan of Arc, Mother Jones, Ella Bloor, Jane Addams, and Beatrice Potter Webb. Compare their stories to that of Annie Clements.
3. Visit the author’s website marydoriarussell.com to learn more about her and her books.A Conversation with Mary Doria RussellThis novel utilizes several perspectives, including those of Annie and Mr. MacNaughton. Why did you choose to tell the story this way?
History is never just one person’s story. I have come to think of events like the strike as existing in the center of a dark place; each point of view shines a different kind of light from a different direction. You get a more complete understanding of history when you see it from multiple perspectives.
For this book in particular, I realized that without James MacNaughton’s attitudes and decisions, the Keweenaw copper strike would probably have been settled in a matter of days. We need to see from his point of view what the stakes were, and what his strategy was, in order to understand what his tactics became.
In MacNaughton’s view, the union had declared war on private property rights, but there are additional motives for his actions. His self-image is rooted in his identity as a WASP: a white, Anglo-Saxon Protestant. He truly believes in his right to rule the lives of lesser peoples. He proudly carries the “white man's burden” at a time when Scandinavians, Slavs, and Italians were not considered white.
Furthermore, his professional expertise is based on controlling every motion his employees make, from how to scrub a pot to how to shovel ore into a tram; nobody was going to tell him how to do anything. And finally, he has an economic agenda: using Calumet & Hecla’s market strength to drive smaller competitors out of business. What kind of research did you do to bring this story to life?
I spent time in the Keweenaw Peninsula, walking through the streets of Calumet, touring the mines, talking to people who still live there. There are two museums in the city, and the docents were very helpful, answering my many questions. Michigan Technical University in Houghton has extensive archives online.
It’s important for a novelist to know what you don’t know. I had no background in mining or labor relations, or legal issues, but I knew enough to ask a variety of people to help me understand various elements of the strike. And, of course, there was a massive amount of reading; I collected about ten linear feet of mining and union histories about the Copper Country and about labor organizing and strikes in the southern and western United States. There have been a few nonfiction treatments of Annie’s life and the copper strike. What made you think the time was right for a work of historical fiction?
The copper strike itself has been studied and written about by historians and legal experts, but those accounts are not meant to engage the emotion of the reader. That's the novelist’s job: to combine imagination and empathy with research.
Strikes are, by their nature, collective actions, so individuals' lives sink into that mass of people in the streets. And, apart from a few well-known figures like Mother Jones and Norma Rae, women usually fade even further into the background of union history.
Miners’ wives were rarely well educated, nor did they have the time and energy to tell their own stories. They were consumed with the daily struggle to keep their families afloat during strikes. Nobody was keeping a diary or writing an autobiography.
Even for Annie Clements, whose name was once well known, the accounts are necessarily thin. We have no interviews, no family memoirs about her. She herself never spoke about her part in the strike after she left Calumet in 1914. Her life seemed significant for less than a year. A few months later, the first world war began, and the newspapers moved on.
And yet, here is a twenty-five-year-old woman who is central to a strike against the most powerful company in the most dangerous industry of her time. A child of despised immigrants. A housewife with a simple education in a time when women couldn’t vote and weren’t supposed to take part in public life. Somehow, she mobilized 10,000 miners and kept everyone going, day after day, month after month.
So my task was to answer Mike Sweeney’s question: What makes a woman like Annie Clements?
As it happens, I know two young people who were well over six feet tall at twelve. They were seen as adults in junior high. They lived with the expectation that they’d be responsible and reliable long before their age mates. Their size has been a dominating element of their maturation. That physical fact was my starting point for Annie.
In late Victorian times, an ideal woman was supposed to be small and weak and quiet, while those fighting for equality were vilified and mocked for being manly. Annie would have taken on that cultural expectation as a girl, and the mockery of boys her age would have reinforced her self-consciousness. She was also supposed to be a mother, and her childlessness was both a sadness and an opportunity.
My feeling was that she'd have devoted herself to her children if she and Joe had been able to have them. She combined her need to nurture with an opportunity to make life better for others through the Women's Auxiliary. So much of this novel focuses on the strength of unions. Do you see any parallels between the unions of the nineteenth century and today?
The dynamics of labor/management relations remain the same, more than a hundred years after the copper strike. Economic and political power still lies largely in the hands of huge corporations. Sometimes their power is wrapped in paternalism, but it’s always backed by “If you don't like it here, find a job somewhere else.” Take it or leave it.
Unions are meant to balance that corporate power by giving employees a say in how a business runs. In the middle of the twentieth century, there were great advances in labor relations, and ever since there has been fierce corporate resistance to such improvements.
Today, global labor markets and the modern gig economy are undermining any control workers might once have had over their income and their working conditions. Once again, the concentration of wealthy is distorting the lives of 99 percent of the population, but activism is increasing. The pendulum always swings.
We live in interesting times.Michael Sweeney is a major character, and so much of his work influences the course of this novel. Why did you choose to include a member of the press rather than simply summarizing the press attention the strike received?
I do have a tendency to lean on narrative, but as the drafts of a novel accumulate, I look for ways to see the story through a character’s eyes and make narrative into dialogue. As the dictum goes: show, don't tell.
And, while the delivery of news has changed from newspapers to online media, we still see independent journalists working to get the stories out, to make the larger public aware of hidden conflicts, just as there are still media that spin those stories to protect corporate and political interests. This novel really shows how the women of Calumet banded together to create change. It’s a truly feminist tale; do you think that our telling of history reflects that?
If it did, there wouldn’t have been so many women wearing pink hats in the streets of Washington!
Throughout my seven decades, there has been a relentless effort to bring women into the civil, legal, academic, and economic power structures, and—no surprise—we have faced the same kind of push-back that was at work in the streets of Calumet in 1913. Belittling, carping, sniping, threats, beatings, rape, and murder are still the tools that are used to keep women out of power.
I wanted to honor our foremothers’ courage and determination in this novel, while acknowledging how exhausting and frightening and dangerous it can be to stand up for change. You use the perspectives of several children and adolescents throughout the course of the novel. Was that a conscious choice you made? Why were their voices important to include?
I often include a fourteen-year-old or two in my novels! I find that age fascinating. They're almost mature. They're still working out where they fit in the world, but they see that world with fresh eyes. They often reject the entrenched adult beliefs that injustice and stupidity and misery are simply “the way things are.” I love that. I love how vocal and demanding they are, and how willing they are to fight the status quo, whether it’s denial of the climate crisis, or school massacres, or institutional sexism and racism. They are fierce and I admire that.What was your favorite scene to write? Your least favorite?
It was a pure joy to write Mother Jones’s passages. I didn’t have to make much up! She was a powerhouse, and it was fun to write someone closer to my own age. Writing for MacNaughton wasn't fun. I had to articulate attitudes that I personally find contemptible, but he is as central to the story as Annie Clements.What do you think is the legacy of the Copper Country Strike of 1913–1914?
Well, up in Calumet, it was much like the Vietnam War was nationally. It divided the city then and it still does to this day. The strike itself changed very little. MacNaughton was rewarded for his part in resisting unionization. The workforce was halved, but that was because of automation—something that continues to be dominant in today's economy.
What we can learn from MacNaughton is that one man can wield outsized power, but also that he will use our divisions against us. What we can learn from the women of the Copper Country is that we can make ourselves heard when we work together. There's power in unity. Both the riot and Italian Hall disaster are weighty subject matter. How did you manage to write about these with clarity and empathy?
Many, many, many drafts. Two things had to happen. I had to find the most effective pair of eyes with which to see the moments I was depicting. And I had to drain the pathos, to make the moments starker and less emotional. If you’ve seen movies like Platoon
, the battle scenes are backed with an adagio, not a scherzo. I wanted the confusion and panic and horror to be experienced as it is in life. Time slows down. People who’ve been through something like that say, “I couldn’t believe what was happening.” Paralysis sets in. It’s only later that you begin to feel the dimensions of the moments.What are you working on next?
I'm circling back toward some of the themes I explored in The Sparrow
and Children of God
: science and religion, faith and folly, politics and companionship. Too early to say much more!