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.