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The Celestials

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.

  • Page Count: 320
  • Direct Price: 12.75
  • List Price: $15.95
  • 5 x 7 3/4
  • June 2013
  • 978-1-935639-55-8
Format Price

Price as Configured $0.00

Karen Shepard is a Chinese-American born and raised in New York City. She is the author of three novels, An Empire of WomenThe Bad Boy’s Wife, and Don’t I Know You? Her short fiction has been published in the Atlantic MonthlyTin House, and Ploughshares, and her nonfiction has appeared in More, Self, USA Today, and the Boston Globe. She teaches writing and literature at Williams College in Williamstown, Massachusetts, where she lives.



"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."
Library Journal

"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."
Library Journal

“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

Chapter One

In the blue of early morning, hours before the arrival of the Chinese boys, Julia Sampson felt her sleeping husband flush with heat and knew that he would stir. She left his body enough space and stroked his arm and chest. Sometimes this worked to cool him.

His head rocked against his pillow and he reached to swipe at his brow.

“Forgive me,” he said thickly, taking her hand and holding it against his chest.

“For what?” she whispered, but he was still asleep.

When he woke, she would ask what was wrong. And he would answer that he didn’t know. 

Outside their bedroom window, dawn was the mildest suggestion. She felt as she always did at that hour. Their world was a world of two; whatever comfort and aid were to be found were to be found from each other. She wished once again for children, and then she shook her head, tucking herself against her husband so that when he did wake, he would wake to her. 

Most of the Chinese strikebreakers had their foreheads pressed to the windows of the train’s immigrant cars, their thirteen-day journey nearing an end. The childlike anticipation with which they had set out had been replaced by an anxiety from which all of them suffered and worked to restrain.

The roar of the fire-wheeled vehicle was relentless and deafening. The grit and grime were impossible to keep from their skin and clothes. The iron strips upon which the train shook and rattled, more than a few of them had agreed, looked like the character gong. 

Some studied their phrase books: “He cheated me out of my wages.” “They were lying in ambush.” “He tried to kill me by assassination.”

Others tried again to develop a liking for coffee. The taste was like the odor of sheep. Several had refused the stew offered at the last station stop, their stomachs half-starved from their continued fear of eating any of the provisions. How could they trust anything from the hands of these foreigners with the complexion of the shark’s belly, whose men and women sat across from each other, their shoes touching? 

One of them had seen a man pick up a thick book, brush it against his lips, and then hold it quietly in his lap. 

A woman at one stop had touched her hand to her mouth by way of greeting another descending from the train.

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. 

Many of them believed that Americans walked in the formation of geese. 

This continent, they knew, was divided into two lands: the northern one in the shape of a flying fish, the southern like the thigh of a man wearing a billowing trouser. 
And now, headed all the way across this strange land, how would they fare? What would become of them? 

With the train’s deceleration more of them crowded against the windows. What can you see? they asked repeatedly, though no answers were offered. Their breath smoked the glass, and one of them reached up to wipe it clean with the wide sleeve of his blue tunic.

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. 

Had the train’s route enabled a more elevated view of the town, the Celestials would have seen that North Adams had a peculiarly happy and peaceful look, as if a tea set were balanced in the hollow of God’s large hand. Factories, hotels, and homes shared the roads and riverbanks with trees and hills, wildlife and rock. Great pines grew upward, the lowest branches as high as a high building. Even the long arms of a pair of the largest of men could not have met around the broad trunks. In spite of stubborn soil and the meddlesome disposition of the Hoosac River, East Hoosuck, later to be North Adams, had been laid out seven miles long from north to south and five miles broad from east to west. It was in shape a parallelogram, the only township in the county of regular geometric form.

To the north stood the Green Mountains of Vermont. To the east rose the Hoosac Range; to the west, the Taconic Range. It had never been possible to see the entire town from any one point of observation. 

The southern and northern branches of the Hoosac River converged in the center of town, clear rapid springs descending apace into deep, shady pools with gravelly beds. The trout populated them as plentifully as the workers occupied the tenement housing behind the mills. The first farmers, at laying eyes on this land, had said that the glorious beauty of a Berkshire summer and autumn would fill neither the granary nor the purse. But by 1870, farms cleared of trees and rocks and located near one of the many living streams shared borders with the thick and formidable forests, shelter to wolf, bear, and wildcat, moose, deer, and turkey, Canadian lynx, porcupine, and fox. Loon, heron, black duck, and even, on occasion, the overly adventurous seagull. 

Mosquitoes and flies wandered in and out of M. S. Southwick’s high-class millinery goods on the corner of Main and Ashland. Deerflies pestered the horses under the care of E. Vadnais, blacksmith at 66 Center Street. Japanese beetles molested the gardens of Miss Fannie Burlingame on the corner of Summer and the high end of Main. Carpenter ants and wood-boring bees wreaked their havoc on porches of pine, alder, and ash. On the front pages of the newspaper, items concerning the best fertilizer for corn shared space with announcements of a village of vigor and enterprise where capital was not suffered to lie idle in the vaults of banks but was constantly in motion.

The hills were covered with greenwood of yellow birch, maple, and hemlock and criss-crossed with old roads and Indian paths and well watered with mountain brooks often breaking into waterfalls of unexpected charm. Rocks dripped with maidenhair and moss. There were orchids in the swamps. Limestone cobbles grew gardens of walking fern and purple cliff brake. 

The town voted Republican in both state and national elections, and was devoted in equal parts to the temperance movement and the nostalgia of a simpler past. The temperature had been known to change forty-four degrees in twenty-four hours. There was no month of the year that was not sometimes very pleasant and sometimes its disagreeable opposite. Floods and fires, illness and death were accepted as pages in God’s large book, but so were the clouds settling on the summits and ridges of Greylock Mountain, the tallest in the state, and the sharp yellow-greens of the trees’ spring leaves, and the ash-purple blanket laid over the hills at twilight. On this thirteenth day of June, God’s creative hand was renewing His original efforts to adorn the world with richness and splendor; the pastures were clothed with flocks, the valleys covered with fledgling corn, and the worms tunneled into the soft earth of early summer. All was wilderness and its contrary mate, and in the distance, the first whistle of the 4:15 from Troy vibrated rapidly against the thousands of eardrums attending to it.