Title & buy link: The Celestial
Author: Barry Brennessel
Cover Artist: Winterheart Designs
Publisher: MLR Press
Buy link: Amazon.com
Genre: M/M historical
Length: Novel (193 pages)
Rating: 4.5 stars out of 5
A guest review by Leslie S
Review summary: A heart-warming story about love conquering prejudice, supported by a truly Dickensian cast.
Hardened beyond his nineteen years, Todd Webster Morgan is determined to find gold high in the Sierra Nevadas. But his dream is violently upended. Complicating matters even more, he meets a young Chinese immigrant named Lao Jian, whose own dreams of finding gold have been quashed by violence.
But life back in Sacramento isn’t any easier. Todd’s mother struggles to make ends meet. His invalid uncle becomes increasing angry. Todd seeks employment with little success. Meanwhile his friendship with Lao Jian turns to love. But their relationship is strained as anti-Chinese sentiment grows.
Todd vows not to lose Lao Jian. The couple must risk everything to make a life for themselves. A life that requires facing fear and prejudice head on.
Todd Webster Morgan finds himself amongst a rowdy group of Irishmen when he uses some of his late father’s bequest to buy himself the rights to pan for gold in the Sierra Nevadas. Though only nineteen, a hard life has made Todd grow up wiser than his years. His mother works as a seamstress and cares for her younger brother, Ned, who lost a leg in the civil war and who now has a foul temper and a great deal of anger at life.
Hoping to find a bit of gold so he can support his family, Todd keeps himself to himself but is attracted to one of the Irishmen, a man about his own age called Breandan. When Breandan comes to his tent one night asking for help, Todd hides him. The rest of the Irishmen surround the tent, and Todd—known as a mediator—goes out to try to calm the situation. Braendan says that he’d seen another of their group trying to kill a Chinese man, and before he’d had chance to help, Breandan had himself been attacked. A vicious argument breaks out, and Todd is forced to abandon his tent and flee for his life.
Breandan is captured by one of the other Irishmen, who tries to lure Todd out of hiding. Breandan is shot, and as Todd goes to assistance, a young Chinese, Lao Jian, comes to help them. Lao Jian’s uncle was the man killed by the Irishmen, and with the rest of the Chinese camp scattered, Lao Jian has no protection and nowhere to go. When Breandan succumbs to his injury, Todd and Lao Jian are forced together and an unlikely friendship develops. Todd is attracted to Lao Jian, and though the Chinese doesn’t want to accept Todd’s help—partly from pride, but mainly because he doesn’t want to draw unwanted attention from other, less kindly white men—neither of them can stay away from each other.
When his savings are stolen from his boarding-house, Todd and Lao Jian decide to make their way to Sacramento, Todd’s hometown. On the journey, they become lovers. But while Todd is welcomed back into his family, Lao Jian is not so fortunate and is beaten up. Though his uncle is ailing and his mother is hiding a secret of her own, Todd makes the decision to stay with Lao Jian in Chinatown—even if doing so will alienate him from all he holds dear.
The Celestial is a wonderful, heart-warming book told with considerable flair. There’s just enough historical detail to ground the reader in a time and place, and those details are woven through the story in a sparse yet evocative way, bringing the places to life yet never overshadowing the characters and the story.
Told in first person from Todd’s POV, we get a very clear idea of who this young man is and what he wants in life. Todd is a strong, talkative character who’s very determined yet also innately kind. His mother calls him a mediator, and he tries very hard to live up to this epithet, even when it has the potential to land him in trouble. He’s got a sure sense of himself and his place in the world, which is refreshing. I did wonder at how easily he accepted his desire for men, given the prevailing anti-homosexual attitude of the period, but his upbringing seems to have been mainly his mother’s concern and there’s no mention of any religious affiliation, which one would expect at the time.
Uncle Ned’s exhortation “Don’t over-think your actions” could stand as the theme for the whole book. Though Todd thinks, and thinks carefully, he also follows his instincts and his heart, especially when it comes to Lao Jian. The mistrust and racism shown towards the Chinese are things that Todd simply doesn’t understand and can’t countenance. He meets others who think the same as him, and through his own beliefs he’s able to change some people’s long-held opinions, but prejudice is slow to overcome. I liked the way the author demonstrates that prejudice worked both ways, and in different ways, too, culturally and ethically, within different communities.
In parts a book about survival, overall it’s to do with hope. Like Lao Jian’s skill with gardening, bringing life back to the garden that Todd’s father planted, the book gradually unfurls to reveal a wealth of possibilities without ever undermining the need for sheer hard work to keep things growing for the future.
The supporting cast can only be described as Dickensian, and indeed the book itself to me felt very reminiscent of a Dickens novel. I particularly liked Mr Starch and Miss Summerton from the stagecoach, and the guests at the Truckee boarding house. Todd’s mother Marnie is a wonderful character, a strong and independent woman who makes time for her own needs as well as caring for her irascible invalid brother and worrying about her son. Uncle Ned, though a minor character, grew as a character alongside Todd and I came to like him immensely and admired his decision at the end of the story.
The book is paced like a Western, especially in the first half of the story, with dips between the action sequences to catch the breath. It has a great visual quality and I found it easy to picture what was taking place as I read. The pace only lags towards the end of the book, where the immediate narrative ends and is replaced by an exchange of letters between Todd and his mother, now living in Idaho. That’s followed by reported narrative, more letters, and snapshots of Todd and Lao Jian’s life together as they grow older, make a success of the orchard-garden, and struggle to ensure Lao Jian’s American citizenship. All this would have been better told as part of the original story, although I can appreciate that it would have made the book twice as long. As it is, it unfortunately felt tacked on; the immediate story in all its excitement had concluded, and the rest feels more like an afterthought. A welcome afterthought, because it was interesting to see what happened next to the characters, but nonetheless, it sat oddly for me and left me feeling less satisfied with the ending.
However, that’s not to detract from what is a very fine story with a lot of colour and interest, a strong and likeable voice and a host of memorable characters. Warmly recommended.