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‘The Women of the Copper Country’ chosen as 2021-22 Great Michigan Read

“The Women of the Copper Country” is Michigan Humanities’ choice for the 2021-22 Great Michigan Read. The story takes place in the 1913 copper strike in the Keweenaw Peninsula. (Photo courtesy of Martin Waymire)

MARQUETTE — Residents throughout Michigan are invited to join in reading and discussing “The Women of the Copper Country,” Mary Doria Russell’s account of 25-year-old Annie Clements as she stood up for the miners and their families during the 1913 copper strike.

The book is Michigan Humanities’ choice for the 2021-22 Great Michigan Read and was unveiled during March, which is Women’s History Month.

“This fictionalized account of the very real and dangerous conditions Upper Peninsula copper miners faced and Annie Clements’ willingness to fight for a better life for them and their families will have readers cheering as Big Annie takes on the company owners in one of the first tests of the American labor movement,” said Shelly Hendrick Kasprzycki, Michigan Humanities president and CEO, in a news release. “At a time when women were expected to keep house and raise children, Annie Clements’ decision to become a leader and take a stand is a story of courage. She’s a wonderful example of the strong and principled women who have made history in Michigan and across the country, and it’s especially important to share her story during Women’s History Month.”

A key leader

Known in real life as Anna Klobuchar Clemenc, the subject was born in Calumet to Slovenian immigrant parents in 1888, according to the National Park Service, which oversees the Keweenaw National Historical Park in Calumet. She founded and served as president of the Women’s Auxiliary No. 15 of the Western Federation of Miners.

According to an article in the NMU Commons, the institutional repository for Northern Michigan University, the women of the Keweenaw were crucial to the strike’s success.

“They were willing to take up aggressive stances and positions to gain better lives for their families,” the article reads. “Although the women did not work in the mines they knew what went on in the mines, the risks and the demands.”

The article notes that Clemenc became a key leader of the strike not only for her organizing abilities but for her constant presence at the front of the marches, or parades, as they were called during the strike.

Clemenc also was at the children’s Christmas party that resulted in the fatal Italian Hall incident on Dec. 24, 1913 when an alleged false cry of “fire” resulted in a stampede. A total of 73 people died, trampled by the crowd trying to exit the hall. More than 50 were children.

At a coroner’s inquest, Clemenc stated she was unable to see the man who had caused the panic. All she could do, she said, was shout that there was no fire and hope people would hear her.

Whatever really happened on Christmas Eve, the “Italian Hall Disaster” led to the end of the strike.

“While the strike ultimately ended in failure, one thing is certain — the women of the strike were crucial to its longevity,” the Commons article reads.

It also states, “The women strikers pushed for change in ways their husbands did not. Years ahead of their time, these female agitators showed the strength of femininity and left a legacy of just what women can do when their lives are on the line.”

Dan Truckey, director of the Beaumier U.P. Heritage Center on the NMU campus, already has used the book in a course.

“It’s an excellent book,” he said.

Truckey said that in that era, women weren’t allowed to be miners, so they offered their support.

By many accounts though, Clemenc, known as “Big Annie,” went beyond that.

“She took a really key role n leading the women’s auxiliary and their support of the strike and going on marches,” Truckey said.

However, the strike didn’t end the way many people likely would have wanted it to end.

Truckey said the mine workers decided to go back to work, but women were not happy about decision.

“In the end, it probably broke her heart,” said Truckey, who noted Annie got divorced, moved to Chicago and later remarried.

However, Big Annie left a big legacy.

“She was a powerful figure and really became a symbol of the strike itself,” Truckey said.

Big Annie an inspiration

Kasprzycki said she hopes Michigan citizens can read, discuss and learn from Big Annie’s inspiring example as “America’s Joan of Arc,” during a Great Michigan Read program that addresses labor history, women’s history and a critical period in Michigan history, when jobs dependent on the state’s many natural resources — copper, iron, lumber — were switching to new jobs on production lines at Henry Ford’s auto factories.

The Great Michigan Read aims to connect Michigan residents by deepening readers understanding of Michigan and its society and humanity. A statewide panel of teachers, librarians, community leaders and book lovers selects the Great Michigan Read every two years.

The 2019-20 book was “What the Eyes Don’t See,” Dr. Mona Hanna-Attisha’s account of her discovery that Flint’s children were being poisoned by lead leaching into the city’s drinking water. The 2017-18 book was “X: A Novel,” a fictionalized account of the early life and Michigan roots of civil rights leader Malcolm X.

The 2021-22 Great Michigan Read is presented by Michigan Humanities and supported by national, statewide and local partners, including the National Endowment for the Humanities, The Meijer Foundation and Martin Waymire.

Russell is the award-winning author of seven best-selling novels, including the science fiction classics “The Sparrow” and “Children of God”; the World War II thriller, “A Thread of Grace”; and a political romance set in 1921 Cairo called “Dreamers of the Day.”

With her novels “Doc” and “Epitaph,” Russell has redefined two notable figures of the American West: the lawman Wyatt Earp and the dental surgeon Doc Holliday.

She holds a Ph.D. in biological anthropology from the University of Michigan and taught anatomy at the Case Western Reserve University School of Dentistry. She lives in Cleveland.

Russell said she was honored that Michigan Humanities chose “The Women of the Copper Country” for the 2021-2022 Great Michigan Read. She spent time in the Keweenaw Peninsula walking through the streets of Calumet, touring the mines and visiting local museums as she prepared to write her fictionalized account of the real-life Big Annie.

“The copper strike itself has been studied and written about by historians and legal experts, but those accounts are not meant to engage the reader’s emotions,” Russell said in a news release. “That was my job — to combine imagination and empathy with research.

“Here was a 25-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 tell readers: What makes a woman like Annie Clements?”

The Great Michigan Read kicks off in September and runs through fall 2022. In addition to free books, Great Michigan Read partners receive free reader’s guides, teacher’s guides, bookmarks and other supplemental materials. Schools, libraries, colleges, arts and cultural institutions, and a range of other nonprofits are eligible to be Great Michigan Read partners. Registration is open at www.michiganhumanities.org. Russell will participate in an author’s tour, with times, locations and decisions on in-person or virtual events to be made at a later date.

The 2021-22 Great Michigan Read title was selected by seven regional selection committees representing all corners of Michigan. After reading books with Michigan themes or locations from June through September 2020, the selection committee chairs met virtually in November and selected “The Women of the Copper Country,” a novel published by Simon & Schuster in 2019, as the next Great Michigan Read.

Action grants of up to $750 will be available to help support registered partners Great Michigan Read programming centered on the themes found in the book’s title. Sponsorship opportunities also are available to support partner events throughout Michigan.

Christie Mastric can be reached at 906-228-2500, ext. 250. Her email address is cbleck@miningjournal.net

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