Monday, June 2, 2014
June 2, 2014: AmericanStudies Beach Reads: The Celestials
[For the last couple years I’ve featured a summertime series on some AmericanStudies books you can pack along with the sunscreen and cold beverages. As summer approaches, it feels right to share some more beach reads—please share your own favorite or future summer page-turners for a weekend post we can all bring with us to the shore or the pool!]
On the historical novel that manages to bridge the gap.
As I mentioned in this book talk post, I had the chance to share a stage at the Museum of the Chinese in America last September with Karen Shepard, author of the wonderful historical novel The Celestials (2013). Shepard’s novel is one of the first to deal at length with 19th century Chinese American histories and experiences, and is even more unique in dealing with them in a New England/East Coast (rather than a California/West Coast) setting; as such it is important and well worth your time (on the beach or anywhere else) for its historical subject matter alone. But the book is also entirely engaging and successful as a work of fiction, and I would argue that it is particularly successful at combining two usually distinct sub-genres about which I have written previously: historical fiction and period fiction.
I defined my version of those sub-genres at length in that linked post, and here will simply reiterate the most salient difference: historical fiction is fundamentally interested in the historical events and themes themselves, and creates characters and stories in relationship to them; whereas period fiction is more interested in creating characters and stories that embody universal human relationships, emotions, and experiences, set in this case against a historical backdrop. Despite my obvious preference for the former, I would emphasize that each sub-genre has value and potential power, and also that each is difficult to pull off successfully (if for different reasons). More difficult still is the task of cominbing the two sub-genres, of creating a historical novel that achieves both effects: engaging in depth with complex, specific historical themes while creating characters and stories that feel as if they could exist in our own era and communities.
Difficult but not impossible—and in this AmericanStudier’s opinion, Karen Shepard has pulled off that combinatory feat in The Celestials. She noted in her MOCA talk that one of the characters with whom she had to take the most authorial liberties is her female protagonist, Julia Sampson; Sampson, wife of the Massachusetts factory owner who imported the group of Chinese immigrant laborers to serve as strike breakers, is the subject of very little historical information. Yet if Shepard’s Julia is heavily fictionalized, and certainly feels very accessible for a 21st century reader, I would at the same time argue that she is deeply connected to her own mid-19th century world; in her individual identity and perspective, and even more in her evolving relationship with one of the Chinese American arrivals, she helps us connect to the novel’s 1870 world deeply and engagingly. But don’t take my word for it—take The Celestials to the beach and find out for yourself!
Next beach read tomorrow,
BenPS. What would you recommend for a good beach read? What are you hoping to get to by the pool this summer?