Excerpt from The Women of Copper Country


Turn tears to fire!

– Romeo and Juliet, William Shakespeare

The dream is always simple. The memory never is.

It’s an echo from 1903 when she was almost sixteen. A rare family outing down to the county fair in Houghton, Michigan.

Her father probably expected the excursion to cheer her up. There were horse races and ox pulls, all day long. A merry-go-round and a Ferris wheel. Games of chance. Vendors calling their wares. Quilts, pies, and jams vying for blue ribbons. The promise of fireworks after dark. But there were crowds as well. Strangers. People who’d never before seen the girl called Big Annie up in Calumet.

At twenty-five, Anna Klobuchar Clements would be known around the world as America’s Joan of Arc. Ten thousand miners would march behind her in a wildcat strike against the richest, most powerful copper company on earth. But that day at the Houghton fair? She was just a big, gawky girl – tired to tears of being pointed at, remarked upon, ridiculed.

Being tall didn’t bother her when she was five. She liked being the biggest in her kindergarten class. She liked school. She didn’t mind at all when the teachers started calling her Big Annie. It never occurred to anyone that she might be embarrassed by the nickname. It was simply meant to distinguish her from another – much smaller – Annie in her class.

The tall American daughter of tall Slovenian parents, Anna Klobuchar had topped six feet at fifteen. In a mining town increasingly populated by underfed, undersized immigrants fresh off the boat, she could never escape the goggle-eyed notice. The endless, stupid teasing of half-grown boys her own age was the worst. As she got taller, they began to feel diminished by her. Intimidated. Irritated by the existence of a girl who was bigger and stronger than they were.

Her younger sister, Maritza, was already engaged. She was barely fourteen but she would marry in a month, long before she reached her full height and got bigger than her husband. And Annie was supposed to be happy about it.

So. That awful county fair in 1903. Which was supposed to cheer her up.

Everybody stared. Grown men came to a stop and demanded, “Jeez, how tall are you anyways?” as though her height were both a marvel and an affront. Women and girls shook their heads and gave silent thanks that they themselves were dainty little things, or at least appeared so when compared to that poor girl. Boys laughed and pointed, calling out familiar taunts, along with new ones that were more hateful. Freak. Giant. Monster. Holy cripes! Look at the size of her! Oughta be in the sideshow with that bearded lady…

She stood it as long as she could. Finally, a couple of hours before dusk, she fled, running toward the cornfields and cherry orchards and pastures beyond the fair. Her sight was still blurred with tears when she heard her father’s voice, just behind her. “Annie, don’t–”

She shattered into frustrated, embarrassed, angry weeping. When the storm passed, she sucked in snot and wiped her nose on the back of her hand and waved toward the crowds. “I’m taller than every boy in Calumet. I’m probably taller than every boy in Michigan! Nobody will ever marry me. Why do I have to be so tall?”

“Your mother’s tall,” he said. “She got me.”

Which didn’t help.

It was a relief to the pair of them when they were startled by the hushed roar of a gas-fired burner behind them, just over a little hill. They turned, and looked up, and saw a huge balloon rising. Red, white and blue silk, billowing.

“Let’s go for a ride,” he suggested. “Just us. Me and you.”

Years later, she would ask herself, Where did he find the wisdom? But that day in Houghton, she wondered where he’d found the cash. Tickets were a day’s pay – each – for a copper miner. She tried to talk him out of it. They both knew her mother would be infuriated by an indulgence like that, but her father told the balloonist, “Two,” and handed him the money. Together they clambered up and over the edge of a big wicker basket and waited for the other passengers to do the same. The balloon would be tethered – “So you won’t drift out over the lake!” – but there were other fasteners holding it down. When the basket was full of paying customers, the pilot released the moorings. There were little shrieks of excitement and fear when the basket rocked off the ground. Everyone ducked and laughed nervously when the pilot opened the burner for a fresh blast of heat. And then… No more sounds except for their own breathing as the huge balloon lifted them higher and higher, its colors aglow in the slanting sunlight.

Below them, the merry-go-round and Ferris wheel seemed like wind-up toys made of tin, and people on the fairgrounds looked like tiny flowers on a vast colorful tablecloth laid out for a picnic.

Summer evenings in Upper Michigan are often brilliant with orange and purple and golden clouds, but that spectacle can become ordinary to those who live in the far north. What surprised Big Annie was how pretty the land itself was when you could see it from above: greened by the scrubby brush that grew around countless tree stumps, laced by white waves edging the stony shoreline of the Keweenaw peninsula, surrounded by Lake Superior’s blue depths.

And that is what her dream always feels like. Like floating into the silence, leaving mockery and fear and anger far below. Like soaring upward without the slightest effort and seeing an unexpectedly beautiful world stretched out in all directions…

In the next decade, she would more commonly awaken with her heart pounding from a different kind of dream, one in which she ran toward some urgent task, increasingly frantic because she was late and there was always an obstacle of some kind. A train blocking the road. A locked door. Knots of men standing in her way. But now and then, that dream of silent floating would come to her, like a father’s blessing. And she would remember, when she woke, what her father told her that day as they floated far above the Copper Country.

“Stand up straight, Anna. Hold your head high,” he told her. “That’s your strength. You are tall for a reason. When your head is high, you can see farther than anyone else.”