New England Public Radio Interview

Northwest Asian Weekly

New York Times Sunday Book Review


Booklist;4/15/2013, Vol. 109 Issue 16, p30

Shepard’s (The Bad Boy’s Wife, 2004) latest offering is an elucidating historical novel peopled with a cast of emotionally fragile, intertwined characters. Calvin Sampson is a real-life shoe manufacturer in North Adams, Massachusetts, who, in 1870, struggles with the unionizing of his workers and replaces them with 75 Chinese laborers, the Celestials, who he recruits from California. Most are under 20 years old, and only the foreman speaks English, so Calvin’s wife, Julia, organizes the townswomen to teach them their new language. Julia, who has survived 13 miscarriages, is joined by, among others, young Lucy, a rape victim who sees the endeavor as a way of moving on with her life; and her friend Ida, who has been assisting Lucy in her recovery. Shepard sprinkles her story with authentic period details and adroitly explores the many ways this “Chinese experiment” affects the small Massachusetts town. When Julia mysteriously disappears for seven months, and returns carrying a mixed-race child, the novel takes on a dimension of suspense. The Celestials is a mesmerizing exploration of one intriguing period in American history and the heart-wrenching consequences of actions perhaps taken too lightly.
— Deborah Donovan

Kirkus Review

Kirkus Reviews

Review Issue Date: April 15, 2013
Online Publish Date: March 31, 2013

Shepard’s (An Empire of Women, 2000, etc.) latest novel is based on a true piece of labor history: In 1870, Calvin Sampson, who owned a shoe factory in North Adams, Mass., broke a strike by importing 75 Chinese immigrants who worked at reduced rates.

Shepard’s story is less about labor issues than the psychological effect that these new faces and this exotic culture had on the locals, who still pictured China as the “Celestial Empire” and the new arrivals as the Celestials. Though Sampson was real, most of the characters are fictional. Shepard’s most vivid creation is foreman Charlie Sing, who is the one Celestial to fully assimilate: He buries one of the immigrants in a Christian grave and keeps his loyalties divided when resolving issues between immigrants and management. More notably, he has a love affair with Sampson’s wife, Julia, who tries unsuccessfully to deny that her newborn child is of mixed heritage. Everyone else in the story has their lives changed by the Celestials’ arrival, including union organizer Alfred Robinson and his sister Lucy, who has survived a sexual assault. Teenage Ida Wilburn is initially hiding a passion for her best friend Lucy, but she too finds herself in love with Charlie. The narration plays with time throughout the book, flashing forward to the characters’ eventual destinies. Shepard maintains an effective air of mystery throughout, hinting at the transformation that the Celestials’ arrival had on the community.

Balancing cultural history with soap opera isn’t easy, but Shepard manages to succeed on both counts.

Library Journal loves The Celestials

Industrialist Calvin Sampson is running a successful shoe factory in North Adams, MA, in 1870 but is troubled by union demands. To break a strike, he takes the unusual step of importing new workers from San Francisco—young Chinese men, most of them teenagers. Thus begins North Adams’s decade-long experiment with the Celestials, as the workers are called, since China was then known as the Celestial Kingdom. The strikers notwithstanding, most citizens of North Adams accept the strange boys, and many women volunteer to teach them English, leading to some close friendships. When Sampson’s wife, Julia, returns to town with a mixed-race infant after months away, cracks appear in relationships, not only between Sampson and Julia and among the community, but also among the Chinese workers themselves.

VERDICT Based on true events meticulously researched by Shepard (Don’t I Know You?; The Bad Boy’s Wife), this compelling and elegantly written literary historical novel transports the reader to 19th-century industrial New England. It should appeal particularly to readers of Chinese American–themed literature.

Nancy H. Fontaine, Norwich P.L., VT