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First Chinese in N. Adams inspire ‘The Celestials’

“The Celestials” by Karen Shepard (Tin House Books, 367 pages, $15.95)

In June of 1870, a controversial train pulled into the station at North Adams. It brought to town 75 young Chinese men from California.

Hired and transported by shoe manufacturer Calvin T. Sampson to replace local workers who had decided to strike for better wages and shorter hours, none of the new arrivals knew that they were strikebreakers. Only one of them spoke English.

“The Celestials,” as they were called in the press and local parlance (China was known at the time as the Celestial Empire), were the first Asians anyone in the area had ever seen. Most of them left North Adams within 10 years.

During their employment there, they enabled Sampson to raise his profit on shoes significantly — and to cripple the burgeoning local union. Local women volunteered to teach the Chinese “boys” the English language and American ways. When they left, images of them remained: photographic portraits that hinted at their lives and their dreams.

Author Karen Shepard, who teaches at Williams College, takes these historical facts and weaves them into a work of fiction that explores gender, ethnicity, power, and love.

She centers the books on Sampson and his wife Julia, who have been married for two decades and are still childless; on Charlie Sing, the Chinese foreman who speaks English and has converted to Christianity; and on three working-class young people whose paths intersect with those of Charlie and the Sampsons.

To a large extent, the novel is about communication — between races, between genders, between industrialists and workers and between friends. Just about every character leaves many thoughts and feelings unexpressed.

Sampson is uncommunicative with Julia because he fears “unmasculine” sentimentality. Julia is uncommunicative with just about everyone because the burden of being childless isolates her.

Charlie leaves much of his biography out of his stories about himself because he wishes to assimilate. The young townspeople are afraid to speak because they are insecure of their place in the world and in each other’s affections.

When Julia finally gives birth to a surprising baby, she at least is freed of her silence. Others around her still keep their counsel, however.

“The Celestials” is sometimes unclear about the motives of its characters — in part because they don’t always understand those motives themselves. It is never unclear about the power of love and forgiveness or the ways in which meeting someone from another culture can begin to liberate a person.

Shepard will speak to the Shelburne Falls Area Women’s Club on Wednesday, Sept. 11, at the Shelburne Grange as part of the group’s “Remarkable Women of the Pioneer Valley” series. Her talk is co-sponsored by the Friends of the Arms Library.

The pre-talk potluck dinner begins at 6 p.m. Boswell’s Books will sell copies of “The Celestials” at that event and later at its Shelburne Falls location. This program is free and open to the public.

Tinky Weisblat is the author of The Pudding Hollow Cookbook (www.merrylion.com) and Pulling Taffy (www.pullingtaffy.com). She is always looking for new books from Franklin County-related authors to review for this paper. If you have a book suggestion, email her at Tinky@merrylion.com.

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