I learned a new piece of Massachusetts history in reading The Celestials by Karen Shepard. In June of 1870, 75 Chinese laborers arrived in North Adams, after two weeks on a train to cross the picket line at Calvin Sampson’s shoe factory. Mostly teenagers, they arrived at the factory of one of the biggest industrialists in the U.S. speaking no English, with the exception of Charlie Sing, their foreman. The townspeople, many of them angry industrial workers, greeted the train intent on launching a protest, but found themselves awestruck at the vision of these young, Asian men, in their blue blouses and soft slippers.
Shepard’s novel imagines the inner lives of Sampson and his long struggling wife Julia, who had lost 14 pregnancies. Historically, they did not have children and lived in a hotel, but she creates a wonderful story about a love triangle between Julia, Sampson, and one of the new laborers. The Celestials, with the help of well-meaning Christian townswomen, forge new lives, managing to fit in as well as they can into North Adams. At a time when the industrial age was just beginning, the conflicts around immigration, labor, and technology all threaten to come to blows time and again. Julia begins a relationship with Charlie, who finds himself surprised at his own feelings. When a mixed race baby appears, the town and even Sampson don’t know how to react.
With quiet prose, the author examines this crucial turning point with her main characters. Some desperate for change, others wanting nothing more then for things to remain as they are. The most tightly drawn people, Charlie and Julia, want both. With only a few mis-steps, Shepard’s novel brings to light a mostly unknown history with good detail.