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.
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Reviews and Praise:
“In The Celestials, Karen Shepard has created a novel so much of its time and place, the 1870s, New England, and yet so utterly relevant to our complex century and the wider world. Her vivid characters share our longings and yet can act only within the framework of their mores and politics. Or can they? This eloquent and suspenseful narrative deepens our understanding of love, loyalty, and the possibilities of transformation. A mesmerizing novel.” -Margot Livesey, author of The Flight of Gemma Hardy
“Karen Shepard’s The Celestials is historical fiction that transcends–that bounds over–the genre. It’s like those very occasional and beautiful color photographs they dig up from some long-gone recess of history: certainly foreign, startlingly familiar. This is entertainment and education, about people both at the mercy of others and nobly independent. It’s a fun, sad, wonderful book. Shepard is one of our best writers and this will be the novel that definitively proves it.” -Darin Strauss, author of Chang and Eng and Half a Life
“The Celestials is a gorgeous, stirring, impressively researched novel about a little-known history of a little-known Massachusetts town, but with large implications for our own century and its dealings with the suspicions and misunderstandings of immigration. I have read all of Karen Shepard’s wonderful books and this is her finest yet.” -Ron Hansen, author of She Loves Me Not: New & Selected Stories
“The arrival of seventy-five Chinese immigrants in North Adams, Massachusetts, sets into motion Karen Shepard’s tender love story The Celestials. Shepard mines history for its facts and textures, its speech patterns and states of mind, its simmering prejudices and life-altering transgressions, and finds all that transcends history to enter the heart and lodge there forever. The Celestials works with the same primal heat as The Scarlet Letter and the same sympathetic scope as The Poisonwood Bible, and enchants and edifies in equal measure.” -Joshua Ferris, author of The Unnamed
“A profound passion for a particular place at a particular time clearly inspired Karen Shepard’s gorgeously crafted novel The Celestials. I have not read anything quite like this book before, though the story it tells–of good yet fallible people caught in the unforgiving riptide of history–is one we need to be told again and again. I love the way Shepard tells it with a cool, deliciously cinematic eye . . . yet a warm and generous heart. Her characters will haunt me for some time to come.” -Julia Glass, author of Three Junes and The Widower’s Tale
“The Celestials is a time travel machine, a book so completely transporting that I was absorbed not just into its depiction of nineteenth-century New England, but into the bodies, hearts, and minds of its unforgettable characters. Shepard lays bare the secret fears, unconscious prejudices, and ‘the ferocity of desire’ of an entire community. It’s a masterful, polyphonic reconstruction, not only of a vanished landscape but also of extinct ways of seeing and relating to the world. Every page held me rapt, and I’m still marveling at the craft and the compassion of this exquisite novel.” -Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia and Vampires in the Lemon Grove
“The Celestials feels like a found antique music box whose foreign and wondrous tune was lost to us, until Karen Shepard reanimated the rare characters for whom its magic was marvelously familiar. The tender detail and social drama of this special book will be the song you want to hear again and again!” -Rivka Galchen, author of Atmospheric Disturbances
Do your own research and learn more about The Celestials in North Adams:
Some of the Chinese workers:
IT HAPPENED IN MASSACHUSETTS: From the Boston Tea Party to the birth of basketball, thirty-two events that shaped the Bay State by Larry B. Pletcher. You can read Chapter 13, “Celestial Shoemakers” online, just click the title.
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