Monday, March 03, 2014

Book review: The Celestials, by Karen Shepard

In 1870, 75 young Chinese men board a train from California to North Adams, Massachusetts, to take jobs in Calvin Sampson’s shoe factory. He’s hired them to replace workers who went on strike, but they’re ignorant of this important fact. Taking its title from a period term for Chinese immigrants, The Celestials offers compassionate observations of how their presence transforms a small New England industrial town.

The novel’s premise is historically based, and on the surface, it may seem to recount an intriguing but rather obscure incident. However, Shepard takes care to demonstrate its importance without getting into lecture-mode. The triumph of Sampson’s “Chinese experiment” drew national attention to North Adams, affecting U.S. labor relations and immigration policy from that time forward.

Shepard interweaves the perspectives of many locals, from Sampson and his wife, Julia, to one of the young strikers and his sister, a recovering rape victim. The Celestials’ viewpoint focuses mainly on Charlie Sing, their English-speaking foreman, who simultaneously benefits and suffers from his role as a cultural bridge. The plot hums along with nervous tension: in this unusual situation, what will happen next? Many North Adams women organize a Sunday school for the Chinese men to encourage their assimilation into society, but when Julia Sampson gives birth to a half-Chinese baby, questions are raised about whether they’ve assimilated too well.

“How little we know of the hidden lives of those about us,” thinks Julia at one point. This theme is explored in many different ways, from Sampson’s insistence on photographing his new employees – a baffling concept to the Chinese, which they delightfully make their own later on – to the opposing reactions to one Chinese laborer’s Christian burial. Through the novel’s insightful characterizations, readers will get to know each of its unique individuals very well, in some instances even better than they know themselves.

The Celestials was published by Tin House Books in June 2013 ($15.95, trade pb, 361pp).  Portland-based Tin House, which also produces a literary magazine, publishes a dozen books a year.  This review first appeared in February's Historical Novels Review.

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