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Posted January 21, 2013
It’s unanimous: Barry Brennessel’s novel The Celestial [MLR Press,LLC, September 6, 2012] is a great story! Most reviews I have read have dipped into the superlative bag for apt descriptors, and I must agree.
My approach comes from my passion and accompanying research into American frontier history, including the California mining communities of the mid-1800s, and I must say that the author has captured the tone of these rough-and-tumble, gritty and grotty settlements remarkably well.
Set against this rugged backdrop is the wide-eyed naïveté of farmboy, Todd Morgan, and his companion Lâo Jian; both innocent romantics who just want to live and love in the midst of this harsh environment.
Part of Brennessel’s strength as a writer is his ability to create vivid characters who are both interesting and unique. Each character has a distinctive voice that sets him (or her) apart while contributing to the over all story. So, whether it’s Ned Calvert, Todd’s irascible uncle, or the young Irish miner, Breandon (on whom Todd has an early crush), they all contribute in their own way.
One of the regrettable aspects of frontier society was the degree of prejudice against certain ethnic societies, i.e. Native Americans and certain foreigners, especially–to the miners–the Chinese, who were called “Chinamen,” “Johnny Pig Tails,” or “Celestials” (because they came from the so-called “Celestial Empire.”)
The miners resented them because they saw them as competition, and distrusted them because they tended to stick to their own communities, which is not surprising since they were generally shunned elsewhere. As a result the Chinese were subjected to all manner of abuse, even murder, and Brennessel has done quite a credible job of portraying this.
Nonetheless, Todd and Lâo Jian persevere primarily because of the strength and love they derive from one another, and this is the inspirational theme that underlies the whole story. Highly recommended. Five bees!
Posted October 25, 2012
In 1871 nineteen-year-old Todd Morgan steals some of his mother’s money, leaves the plot of land they live on north of Sacramento with his uncle Ned Calvert, buys a horse, and heads for the Sierra Nevadas near Truckee to find gold. The money actually belonged to his father, who got himself killed in a barroom brawl. Ned, Todd’s mother’s angry and bitter younger brother, who chose to fight and lose a leg for the losing side in the Civil War, has goaded his nephew into his impulsive and naive adventure. Todd’s search for gold and instant wealth ends in horrifying violence, leaving him with nothing but the clothes he wears. Todd doesn’t discover any gold in his pan, but he does find Lao Jian, a young Chinese immigrant who is also prospecting for gold with his uncle. The title of Barry Brennessel’s page-turning novel derives from Americans of that day calling Chinese immigrants “celestials” because they came from what was known as the “Celestial Empire.” Finding themselves in grave danger, Todd and Lao Jian flee Truckee together. The intense prejudice against both Chinese people and individuals desiring persons of their own sex force Todd and Lao Jian to fight what often appears to be a hopeless battle on two fronts. Todd Morgan and Lao Jian aren’t without their flaws, but I found them wholly sympathetic. One could say they fight their battle on three fronts, the third being their disarming innocence in a world cruel beyond their imagination. I loved reading this novel. It has a compelling story, believable characters, and artful writing. Todd, the narrator, says this about a young man he meets in the mountains (before he runs into Lao Jian): “It was like staring into a meadow in springtime, and your eyes just don’t want to work themselves free of the colors when the wildflowers dance in the breeze.” Regarding both Chinese and Irish immigrants, Todd says, “The law sure took umbrage when the criminal was a foreigner, but looked the other way when the foreigner was a victim.” The short last chapter is one of the finest epilogues I’ve read. The first line alone, a date, found me wiping my eyes so that I could read on.Was this review helpful? Yes NoThank you for your feedback. Report this reviewThank you, this review has been flagged.