In Copper Empire by Donna Searight Simons, all of the necessary pieces of a good historical fiction novel come together against the intense setting of the U.P. copper mining boom.

 

 

 

The story takes place in the town of Red Jacket (Calumet) and deals with the events leading up to the 1913-1914 labor strike and the infamous Italian Hall Disaster in which over 70 people (mostly the children of miners) died. In fact, the story starts with a glimpse of that tragic Christmas Eve in 1913 and then jumps back significantly in time to start the narrative proper—a well-used device which will get readers invested in the story immediately and keep them turning the pages.

 

It might be something of an injustice to call copper mining the “setting” of this book. In Copper Empire, the mining industry—and the mine itself—function more as characters than as simple set pieces. The constant and overwhelming sense of danger on the lower levels of the mine, the ominous tension between labor and management: these abstract concepts seem to live and breathe and truly exist as much as any of the human characters do.

 

In fact, the storylines of romance and familial drama which help to get us invested in the characters and move the narrative along seem almost petty in comparison to the main story of the mine itself, and this is not surprising. The best historical novels are about history—not about cookie-cutter characters dropped into a certain place and time just because it seems like an interesting idea. Simons certainly seems to understand this, and that’s one of the reasons this novel succeeds for both local history enthusiasts and general readers of historical fiction.

 

Besides being a solid entry into the historical fiction category, it is also fair to call Copper Empire an important book, because it deals with such an underrepresented subject. If you take historical novels set in 1840s California, or the Yukon, and stack them up against fiction written about the U.P. copper boom, a comparison cannot even be made due to the huge imbalance.

 

Copper Empire fills a long-neglected niche and does so with an accessible, straight-forward narrative featuring fully-realized characters and subplots that make turn-of-the-century Calumet come alive.

 

For further insight into the Italian Hall Disaster, check out Steve Lehto’s nonfiction book Death’s Door: the truth behind Michigan’s largest mass murder, located at call number 977.4 LEH.