The Celestials

The Celestials, a novel by Karen Shepard

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

“The Celestials is a mesmerizing exploration of one intriguing period in American history and the heart-wrenching consequences of actions perhaps taken too lightly.” -Starred Booklist

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

“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.” -Library Journal

“Karen Shepard, herself Chinese-­American, has taken the scholarly record of the Celestials’ years in North Adams and refashioned it into a richly detailed novel” -New York Times Book Review

Here, author Celeste Ng recommends The Celestials:

One of the “Five Best Novels of Summer” in O Magazine, selected by Karen Russell:

Review and interview on

An interview with Karen Shepard in Interview Magazine about The Celestials:
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


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.


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


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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A SHOEMAKER’S STORY: Being Chiefly about French Canadian Immigrants, Enterprising Photographers, Rascal Yankees, and Chinese Cobblers in a Nineteenth Century Factory Town by Anthony W. Lee