Rating: 5 stars
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Life can be hard on a farm, especially without a lot of help for you and your Ma. Nineteen-year-old Todd Webster Morgan is acutely aware of this fact as he watches his Ma work from dawn to dusk just trying to make ends meet enough to support the two of them and her crippled younger brother returned from the war. Uncle Ned fought for the losing side and came home with half his leg gone and his personality turned bitter and acrimonious. Todd Webster does what he can, but there are no jobs to be found on the far outskirts of Sacramento where they live. Then Uncle Ned mentions the money to be made mining for gold in the Sierra Nevadas and Todd Webster sneaks away in the dead of night determined to make enough money for them all.
But if Todd Webster Morgan thought life was tough before, he was unprepared for the realities of mining for gold high in the mountains. He is cold, dirty, and hungry most of the time with little to show for it. Todd’s claim abuts that of a group of Irish miners and he has struck up a friendship with one of them. One has to be wary of others all the time, as claim jumpers and thieves are rampant, something Todd knows all too well. Then one night, tragedy strikes the small encampment. A celestial, as the Chinese are called, has been murdered on the mountain and Todd Webster’s friend accused of the killing. In just one moment, everything goes wrong and soon Todd is running for his life. In the middle of all the confusion, another celestial named Lao Jian comes to help Todd when he needs it the most, The two young men escape and start heading back towards Sacramento, running from anti-Chinese sentiment, jumping box cars, and escaping from robbers while finding love along the way.
The Celestial is an impressive and remarkable story of a young man finding his way during life in California in the 1870s. Barry Brennessel skillfully brings to life an explosive period of time in American history through the characters of Todd Webster Morgan, his family, and his lover, Lao Jian. We first meet up with Todd Webster on the mountainside high in the Sierra Nevadas where he and others are mining for gold and not having very much luck. Brennessel’s vivid descriptions of the setting and the activities on the mountain make us feel the cold and misery of the campsite, the bad food and dirty conditions. Mining for gold was hard, back breaking work. People rushed out there to try their luck thinking their fortunes were assured only to lose all their money and sometimes their lives in the effort. Claims for the land had to be filed and the paperwork in order as a claim was in danger of being “jumped” and confiscated all the time. Those that didn’t mine preyed on the miners in a number of ways, looking to take their money. Far the the glamorous rumors of gold floating in the waters, the author paints a gritty portrait of miners barely surviving under close to intolerable conditions. Over and over throughout the book, Brennessel brings the era to life right before our eyes. From the Chinatowns to the boarding houses Todd Webster rents a room in, we feel as much a part of the times as the characters. The author has clearly done his homework, from the tools to the laws yet n0t once does it come across as a history lesson. Just an outstanding example of historical writing at its best.
Brennessel made another wonderful choice when he decided to tell the story from Todd Webster’s POV. At nineteen years of age, Todd is “a man” as he often reminds others. But to the reader his young age is still so readily apparent. Todd misses his mother and uncle, and repeats his mother’s sayings often, especially when Todd Webster is trying to do the right thing by others. Todd can still marvel at new sights before him, yet still shoulder the burden of responsibility of someone older due to the times. I loved “seeing” each new town, experiencing it as Todd Webster and Lao Jian live it. Todd Webster (both of his first and middle names are important to him) has been frugal with his funds as he doesn’t spend it on drink and “hors” like the others on the mountain are doing. And he is advised to be quiet about the amount of money he has by his friend, thereby giving us a very accurate picture of life on the mountain and the lawlessness of the area during those times. These are wonderful characters that populate this story. Lao Jian is as alive as Todd Webster, although we only see him from Todd’s perspective. Lao Jian’s quiet yet proud manner is a strong complement to Todd Webster’s somewhat impulsive prickly youthful attitude. It is easy to see what attracts them to each other, an attraction that grows into love along their journey. Everything about the characters seems “right.” Their speech, clothes, and actions are grounded in history, and all come across as totally believable in every way.
Lao Jian and the other celestials we meet have been brought to America to work on the railroad and end up in camps on the outskirts of town when their labor is no longer necessary. The same arguments heard today over illegal aliens taking away jobs from those who “rightfully belong here” have their foundations, in part, laid out during this time period. Discrimination against the Chinese makes its impact felt as Lao Jian is barred from certain establishments and expected to ride outside of the stagecoach and we are as angry as Todd Webster over these actions. Anti-Chinese sentiment was far spread in that region; the author skillfully brings to life the racial intolerance of the period but shows us the whole measure of the human response from outright hostility, to indifference, to those to filled buckets and formed lines to help put out the fires in Chinatown.
Brennessel handles his characters sexuality with the same deft touch he displays throughout the book. Todd Webster is aware that he doesn’t look at or yearn for women the same as others do and at nineteen he is a virgin as much emotionally as he is physically. Away from home, he starts to look at certain men differently without acting upon it. That is until he meets Lao Jian. Lao Jian is only slightly more experienced than Todd Webster and their first sexual advances towards each other is tentative and earnest. Don’t expect any hot sexual scenes here. What does happen between the two is more of the kisses, fumbling nature and the rest is “offstage” and private, which is in keeping with the nature of these two. Also in keeping with historical accuracy, the forbidden nature of their “sexual congress” is mentioned as is Todd Webster’s initial confusion over his sexuality. But he comes to grip with it as Todd does everything else in his life and the way in which the relationship is handled makes sense in every way.
I loved the ending of the book which culminates in letters written between Todd Webster and his mother, and then his correspondence with his great grandson. Through the letters, we learn of the changing times and the life Todd Webster Morgan and Lao Jian managed to achieve together. I will admit to reading those last chapters several times, mostly with tears in my eyes and joy in my heart. If I have a quibble with this book, it is that it passes all too quickly in 180 pages. Barry Brennessel packs a lot of life as well as history into this superlative story. Do not pass this book by. If you are not a fan of historical writing, this might make you one. If you are one already, this book will climb to the top of the pile. This book was a Finalist, 2012 Pacific Northwest Writers’ Association Literary Contest. It deserves that recognition and so much more.
Cover: This cover by Winterheart Designs will be one of the best of the year. Just outstanding from the design to the sepia tones. Loved it.