In June of 1870, seventy-five Chinese laborers arrived in North Adams, Massachusetts, to work for Calvin Sampson, a shoe manufacturer and one of the biggest industrialists in that busy factory town. Except for the foreman, the Chinese didn’t speak English. They didn’t know they were strikebreakers. The eldest of them was twenty-two.
Despite threats from the fired union workers, there were no major incidents of violence. Within days, the Chinese were at work. Within weeks, they were studying with local volunteers. The fired workers opened a cooperative factory, but The Knights of St. Crispin, the biggest union in the country, was broken. North Adams wouldn’t have another union strike—in any industry—for a decade.
The Celestials follows several characters but is centrally focused on the relationships between Sampson and his wife, Julia, who has had several miscarriages over the course of their childless marriage; Sampson and his new workers, whom he comes to look upon as “sons”; and the townspeople and the Celestials, who are regarded as both threatening and exotic. When Julia gives birth to a clearly mixed-race baby, the infant becomes a lightning rod for the novel’s questions concerning identity, alienation, and exile.
The Celestials is a historical novel of immigration, multiculturalism, labor, community and exclusion, alienation and reinvention, and our country’s peculiar history and relationship with all those things. It’s about our shared sense that we’re all aliens of some kind—at home in no place. The book asks us to think about how we make ourselves into the people we want to be, and what gets sacrificed along the way.