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In June of 1870, seventy-five Chinese laborers arrived in North Adams, Massachusetts, to work for Calvin Sampson, 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.
Combining historical and fictional elements, The Celestials beautifully reimagines the story of Sampson’s “Chinese experiment” and the effect of the newcomers’ threatening and exotic presence on the New England locals. When Sampson’s wife, Julia, gives birth to a mixed-race baby, the infant becomes a lightning rod for the novel’s conflicts concerning identity, alienation, and exile.
"Morally, this is a challenging book. It takes you back in time to 19th-century North Adams, Massachusetts, where a group of Chinese laborers have been brought in to become unwitting strikebreakers. It's based on a true event I'd never heard of—I'd call it historical science fiction. The author excavates entire ways of seeing through her re-creation of a vanished landscape. There's also a moving love story."
—Karen Russell, author of Swamplandia and Vampires in the Lemon Grove, in O, The Oprah Magazine
"Karen Shepard . . . 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
"The Celestials is a mesmerizing exploration of one intriguing period in American history and the heart-wrenching consequences of actions perhaps taken too lightly."
—Booklist, starred review
"Balancing cultural history with soap opera isn’t easy, but Shepard manages to succeed on both counts."
"Based on true events meticulously researched by Shepard 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."
"Heartfelt fiction grounded in carefully researched history, this novel tells the story 75 Chinese laborers who travel from San Francisco to North Adams, MA, in 1870 to work at a shoe factory, where they are unwittingly breaking a strike."
“What a riveting, wonderfully intelligent novel! Karen Shepard’s characters vibrate with desire and disappointment, so obdurately individual that a whole world springs to life around them and the past becomes completely present.”
—Andrea Barrett, author of Ship Fever and The Air We Breathe
"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
"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
Most of them had only been days off the ship before signing on for this adventure to the east of this most unusual country. A mix of disoriented and weary, they were, however, grateful to have procured work so quickly. Those who had been in the country longer had spent their days well within the confines of San Francisco’s Chinatown, some of them never hearing any language but their own.
Their designated foreman remained in his seat, commencing a new page in his journal: 6th month, 13th day, he wrote in his labored English. Bright and sunny; no cloud or rain.