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...

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The Celestials: A Novel

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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.

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Editorial Reviews

The New York Times Book Review - Max Byrd
Karen Shepard…has taken the scholarly record of the Celestials' years in North Adams and refashioned it into a richly detailed novel…
From the Publisher

"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

Praise for Don't I Know You?

"Darkly tantalizing."
The New York Times Book Review

"Subtle and rewarding, Shepard's narrative unravels the mystery of Gina's murder obliquely, through her characters' layered relationships, leading to a conclusion that's satisfying, haunting and well deserved."
Publishers Weekly

“Shepard has found a voice here that is as strong and confident and full of wise observation.”
O, The Oprah Magazine

“[This] cunningly crafted jigsaw puzzle is colored by vibrant prose and capped by a you’ll-never-guess conclusion.”
Entertainment Weekly

“A chilly, disquieting mystery in which the answer to the title is always ‘no.’”
—Ron Hansen, author of Mariette in Ecstasy

“Riveting and deeply felt and true.”
—Dave Eggers, author of A Heartbreaking Work of Staggering Genius

“This is a book that haunts and tantalizes and possesses us long after the last page is turned.”
—Tim O’Brien, author of the Pulitzer Prize finalist The Things They Carried a

Praise for The Bad Boy's Wife

"Domestic fiction done with edge and attitude."

The Bad Boy’s Wife is a wonderful novel, compelling, spare, and as suspenseful as any fine mystery, but this is literature, and it has remarkable emotional resonance. [Karen Shepard] writes with such grace that The Bad Boy’s Wife seems to have been waiting somewhere in the world simply for her to reveal it, which is the truest gift a writer can give to any reader.”
—Robb Forman Dew, American Book Award-winning author of Dale Loves Sophie to Death and The Evidence Against Her

“Taut, disturbing and memorable, this portrait of a marriage gone awry gains unusual power and poetry through its deft inversions of the past.”
—Andrea Barrett, National Book Award-winning author of Voyage of the Narwhal and Servants of the Map

Library Journal
Industrialist Calvin Sampson manages 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 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; this leads 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 within 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, 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
Kirkus Reviews
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.
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9781935639558
  • Publisher: Tin House Books
  • Publication date: 6/11/2013
  • Pages: 320
  • Sales rank: 235,897
  • Product dimensions: 5.10 (w) x 7.60 (h) x 1.10 (d)

Meet the Author

Karen Shepard is a Chinese-American born and raised in New York City. She is the author of three novels, An Empire of Women, The Bad Boy’s Wife, and Don’t I Know You? Her short fiction has been published in the Atlantic Monthly, Tin 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.

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