Mary Doria Russell Spotlights 'The Women Of The Copper Country'

Mary Doria Russell [Dina Rossi]
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After spending nearly a decade researching and writing about legendary gunfighter Doc Holliday in her books '"Doc" and "Epitaph," Lyndhurst author Mary Doria Russell now turns her attention to another larger than life character. 

In her new novel, "The Women of the Copper Country," Russell digs into the history of "Big Annie" Clements, the Michigan labor leader whose story has been lost to history.

The best-selling novelist discovered "Big Annie" in the PBS documentary "Red Metal: The Copper Country Strike of 1913."

Russell was amazed by the 25-year-old labor activist who rallied miners to strike against the Calumet and Hecla Mining Company in Michigan's Upper Peninsula.

"I just thought, 'Wow! How did that happen? How does a young woman like that get to front a miner's strike?'" she said.

The real "Big Annie" spelled her last name Clemenc. However, the name is pronounced the way Russell spells it in her book (Clements). Meanwhile, her nickname came from her height.

"She was 6 feet, 3 inches tall. If you've watched 'Game of Thrones' think [actor] Gwendoline Christie and you're right there. They look like they could be sisters," Russell said.

Russell dramatizes Clements' life as a miner's wife as a woman filled with fear that someday her husband won't return from the mines.

"When a man was late coming home from work after his shift, everyone who depended on him was living on the edge of an abyss," she said.

Mary Doria Russell [ideastream]

The foil to Clements' character is the CEO of Calumet and Hecla, James MacNaughton.

"This is a man who truly believed in [Rudyard] Kipling's 'white man's burden.' He absolutely despised the immigrants who were working for him, but he felt it was his burden to bring them into civilization," she said. "On his terms."

Russell wants her book to spotlight the forgotten role women played in the labor movement.

"Annie organized clothing banks, food banks and wrote constantly to try and get donations from all over the country. That background work is usually not the focus," she said.

The miners' strike began in the summer of 1913 followed by a riot that fall. By Christmas, the tensions rose to a deadly level leading to what is known today as the Italian Hall Massacre.

"Big Annie" organized a Christmas Eve celebration for the miners' children at the Calumet Italian Hall. More than 800 people crammed into the building's second floor.

"Somebody came up those stairs, and we don't know to this day who it was, and yelled 'fire!'" she said. "There was a panic and a stampede down the 22 steps from the hall to the street and one of the children stumbled and then somebody stumbled over him."

In the end 73 people persished a stampede, including 59 children, in the rush from the hall despite the fact that there was no fire that night. No one was ever convicted.

Russell believes "Big Annie" deserves the other nickname she was given for her work as a labor leader -- "America's Joan of Arc."

Mary Doria Russell reads at Brews and Prose Tuesday, November 12 at 7pm at Market Garden Brewery

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