A slice of local history
Historical fiction in your own backyard is intriguing for several reasons: it happened here; it has in some way affected the way you live; you know the people even if you haven't met them; the author has invented enough to make you doubt what you think you know. So it is with "The Celestials," a novel by Karen Shepard. The author, who has previously published three novels, is, according to her own website, a half-Chinese/half-Russian Jewish writer, reader, professor, mother, wife, dog owner. She is also married to novelist Jim Shepard.
It is the personal connection with her own cross-section background that brings an additional sense of intrigue into this work. Knowing that the author shares a historic perspective with a character in the book makes that character much more central to the writing. The fact that this historic person doesn't enter the book until late, chapter 18, is fascinating in itself, for inevitably the book is about her and everything that came before is really fictional preamble to the very short story that concludes the book.
The choice that Shepard makes in framing her novel in this way is both fascinating and disturbing. First of all, the book is beautifully written from beginning to end. She deals up highly readable prose that we're dealing with in this review. The situation in 1870 at the beginning of the book is just as interesting as the situation in 1893 which is where the book ends. The parallels of discovery are as deep in their own ways as possible. In 1870 a collective of Chinese workers arrive in North Adams, Mass. to take their places in the shoe factory owned by a man who sees only what he needs to see and whose wife sees deeper into the heart of the matter. Calvin Sampson becomes reliant on his new Chinese foreman, Charlie Sing, and in her own way so does his wife Julia Sampson. An awkward triangle is formed and the results, though predictable, are also fascinating.
Shepard weaves in several other stories of people and their peculiar relationships. These stories, particularly dealing with two young women who work for the Sampsons in one way or another, form parallel histories that feel even more tangible than the main thread of the book. Sampson is real, Julia is real, and the Chinese are real. How much more is supportable as authentic may be up to the reader to decide, although a great many of the earlier works cited in the notes to the book may prove very illuminating to the reader who comes to this book. However, the book itself may be enough, with its intriguing major gestating tale, to sustain the reader's interest. Clearly there are more hints to be followed if you are so inclined.
When a book reads this well, all be it without the mystery a novel often imparts, it is something to linger over, to savor and to enjoy. The language Shepard imports from another world is always fascinating and, though somewhat like our own, easy to grasp and to enjoy.
Enjoyment is a word I must associate with this book. I enjoyed every minute, every page of it. Well-written it serves its purpose -- to tell the story of early integration into our workplaces in Berkshire County and the toll that this took on natives of the region and elsewhere who worked in New England. This is highly recommended for adult readers and for young adults as well.
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