Welcoming 'Celestials': Lenox will read Karen Shepard's novel on Chinese mill workers in North Adams


LENOX -- Seventy-five young men, as young as 12 or 14, are looking out the train windows at fields and stone walls, and streets lined with elm trees. Sheep graze almost to the top of Mount Greylock. Pasture and charcoal have stripped the hills bare.

Everything looked and smelled and tasted new to them. Many of them would not eat the train food. These teenagers had all newly come from China, and only one spoke English.

"How could they trust anything from the hands of these foreigners with the complexion of the shark's belly, whose men and women sat across from each other, their shoes touching?

"... A woman at the first stop had touched her mouth by way of greeting another descending from the train."

Williams Professor Karen Shepard describes them in her novel, "The Celestials."

Her story is historical fiction, but the young men were real. They came to North Adams in 1870 to break a strike at Calvin Sampson's shoe factory.

Lenox will hold a community read of Shepard's 2013 novel this month, with readings and events. Lenox Reads chooses a story that concerns the community, said Sharon Hawkes, executive director at the Lenox Library.

"The Celestials" deals with questions wringing the country, she said, with immigration, assimilation and acceptance.

"I didn't plan that," Shepard said, "but while I researched it, I would listen to the news and think, ‘Have we learned nothing?' "

As she wrote, her novel began to sound sharply, sometimes painfully familiar.

North Adams in 1870 was a sealed place, held in a valley, Shepard said. But the mills were running full-speed ahead. They were changing, as machines took on more work, and the mill owners no longer needed workshops of skilled craftsmen.

Sampson was facing off against the Knights of St. Crispin, the union persuading all non-union workers to leave Sampson's mill.

The strikers were mostly Scots or Irish, and newcomers themselves, and they had made enemies in the town. Shepard shows them refusing to work with any man who would not join the Crispins and driving men violently out of town.

Shepard felt the story take hold of her at a talk by art historian Anthony Lee, who teaches at Mount Holyoke College. Shepard had known about the strike breakers, but she had never seen the Celestials, as the Chinese workers became known. She looked at a photograph of young teenagers lined up against a brick wall on their first day in North Adams, while armed guards around them held guns, keeping the strikers away from them.

She left the talk thinking about the power of the Celestials' story.

It took her longer to feel that she needed to write it.

She and Lee shared research, she said. She could read accounts of what a shoe-making factory in the 19th century looked and sounded like, but the Celestials had not written their impressions.

She drew from the experiences of many people like them, from "How do you deal with Americans" books written for Chinese immigrants -- and from her own experiences.

Her mother is Chinese, and when she was 6, Shepard visited China with her mother. "My presence was so foreign to the kids there," she said. "I looked Chinese, but not enough. I had a camera."

She would be surrounded by children who wanted to touch her, to touch her hair. That feeling, that glimpse of what an unfamiliar world thought of her, stayed with her.

In North Adams, local families mentored the Celestials, taught them English and tried to convert them to Christianity.

The Celestials lived and worked in North Adams for 10 years, to the end of their contracts, and then most of them returned home.

But their leaving did not mean Sampson's idea had failed. He won. He broke the strikers and the union, and when his Celestials finished their contracts, he invited more to come. In fact, Sampson's idea worked so well -- for the mill owners -- that the U.S. banned Chinese laborers. White U.S. workers protested. President Chester Arthur signed the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, deporting Chinese workers and forbidding them entry to the country. The act remained in place until 1943.

Shepard has given voices to the people this country kept out for so long, and she has made their stories her own.

In the photographs, she said, she could not put names to faces. Only in two cases could she look at a man and know his name or his story.

Charlie Sing, the foreman and the only Celestial who spoke English in the beginning, becomes a central figure in Shepard's story.

Lue Gim Gong also worked as a gardener for the Burlingame family in North Adams. They adopted him, and he moved with them to Florida -- where he developed a new kind of orange that could withstand Florida summer heat, and revolutionized all of Florida's orange orchards.

Fanny Burlingame, his adopted mother, was cousin to Anson Burlingame, Abraham Lincoln's U.S. diplomat to China. In a sad irony, Anson's work in the 1860s may have allowed Lue Gim Gong to come to the U.S. in 1870 -- and Lue Gim Gong's patient work in North Adams may have persuaded the U.S. to forbid his countrymen to come here for the next 60 years.

None of the Celestials are still here, Hawkes said, except as headstones in North Adams cemeteries. The Chinese characters carved into them have mostly faded away.

If you go ...

What: Lenox Reads Together, ‘The Celestials' by Karen Shepard, community-wide book read

When: Karen Shepard will speak today, Feb. 6

Where: Lenox Library, 18 Main St.

Admission: Free

Upcoming events: North Adams historian Paul W. Marino, Feb. 13

Book discussion on Feb. 18

Library slideshow on people in Lenox's history on Feb. 20

Book discussion at The Bookstore, Feb. 25

Library showing of the film 'The Visitor' on Feb. 27

Information: (413) 637-2630, info@lenoxlib.org


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