Russell (Epitaph, 2015, etc.) offers a lesson in American labor relations in this fictional portrait of Anna Klobuchar Clements, a 25-year-old miner’s wife who led a wildcat strike against the large Calumet, Michigan, copper mining company Calumet & Hecla in 1913.
Though little remembered today, Annie Clements acquired the soubriquet “America’s Joan of Arc” for her leadership during the monthslong labor uprising involving as many as 9,000 miners. Annie comes across as a larger-than-life heroine—physically striking at 6-foot-1—although also a warmhearted woman with an increasingly conflicted emotional life. Initially she seems no different from other miners’ wives, stretching pennies to keep house while accepting her husband Joe’s drunken bluster and beatings without complaint. Her sorrow is that after seven years of marriage she has yet to conceive. Instead of motherhood, Annie has thrown herself into her responsibilities as president of the Women’s Auxiliary of Local 15, the Western Federation of Miners. No matter that Joe refuses to join the union. A miner’s death pushes Annie to call for a strike to improve salaries and safety conditions. Experienced union organizer Charlie Miller (a fictional composite of two real union leaders) doubts the strike will succeed, but he recognizes that Annie is a powerhouse he must support. Charlie invites photographer/reporter Michael Sweeney (also a composite) to Calumet to get national coverage. Michael finds himself drawn not only to the drama of the strike, but also to Annie, who inevitably discovers she reciprocates his desire. Union icon Mother Jones makes a cameo appearance, and then there’s Annie’s real-life nemesis, James MacNaughton, the company’s general manager, whose interest in hygiene seems almost progressive until he reveals himself as a greedy capitalist committed to maximum efficiency and profit whatever the human cost. Russell writes with her usual verve, but readers will miss the emotional density of her best work, in which abundant research melts into the human drama; here, characters often feel like puppets manipulated to sell a slice of union history from a decidedly anti-capitalist angle.
Historical fiction that feels uncomfortably relevant today.