The Celestial, Barry Brennessel
Publisher: MLR Press
Genre: LGBTQ (G) YA, NA, Interracial, Historical, Romance
Length: 176 Pages
Reviewer: Kazza K
One man’s label of impudence is another man’s label of standing up for himself, least that was my philosophy.
And that attitude helps nineteen year old Todd Webster Morgan survive for over a month outside of Truckee, high up in the cold mountains, trying to find gold with seven Irishmen riding him about his claim, and his age, calling him Todd-ler. And Todd making friends with the eighth Irishmen, the closest to his age, Breandan. It is through Todd’s eyes that you see first yearnings for Breandan. That he is same-sex attracted. On the last night before they are all going into Truckee, all hell breaks lose with people shot, people dead. And Todd meeting Lao Jian, a Celestial, whose uncle has been murdered by one of the Irishmen. Todd and Lao Jian are soon in need of getting off the mountain quickly and into Truckee.
Todd stole away from home over a month prior with $42.00, part of some money his father left when he died, with the idea of it being an investment in making much needed money for his family. His Uncle Ned has read Todd articles about gold being found and wealth being made. To an idealistic nineteen year old who wants to get away from a house that is calamitous, with his uncle left bitter from the war and his injuries, and his mother who works her fingers to the bone to pay for their home and medical expenses, this seems an ideal opportunity.
But now, with nothing more than time spent learning some harsh realities about the world, Todd has found his way to Truckee with Lao Jian. Todd takes a room in a boarding house and Lao Jian goes to Truckee’s Chinatown. He can’t be with a white man, no matter that Todd doesn’t see colour or race, just a person, other people are prejudice. Even though they are in Truckeee, the ultimate goal is for Todd to get back to his home north of Sacramento to be with his Ma and Uncle Ned again. He’ll try to get a job and help out if he can get back there. The time spent in Truckee sees Todd and Lao Jian grow close. Todd respects the Chinese community and learns that not many in the white community do when a fire threatens Chinatown.
On the journey back to Sacramento Todd and Lao Jian cement a deeper, intimate relationship, but the hopes of things being easy for a) a gay couple and b) an interracial gay couple in 1870’s Sacramento are not so simple. Todd goes home and Lao Jian has to live in another Chinatown. Here, Lao Jian and Todd grow closer still. Todd comes into town to meet with Lao Jian, like he did in Truckee, and Lao Jian gives Todd a hat as he lost his on the mountain…and a man can’t be without a hat. A catalyst occurs in Sacramento that basically outs Todd to his family, although typical of the times the words are never used to define anything other than a friend. But everyone knows they are a couple. I thought a nice touch was a father-figure of Lao Jian’s teaching Todd how to say I love you in Cantonese -there is no woman in Lao Jian’s life, only Todd. However, the rest of Todd’s family have little time to adjust to Todd’s status as big events of their own occur. These events allow Todd and Lao Jian a chance to be together, living in Todd’s family home and working in the orchard that his father planted prior to his death.
Beautifully named, The Celestial is a wonderful read from start to finish. Todd Webster Morgan’s voice makes for an authentic, earthy, and realistic narrative throughout. I loved how interested he was in other cultures at a time when foreigners were more than frowned upon. Lao Jian is never short-changed by not having a POV. He is lovely, has such humour, dignity, and I thought he was written with much respect. Overall, the writing is empathetic, with an elegant ease, and economical use of words, yet so layered and full of meaning. The epilogue is something special. It is also an historical story that captures the essence of 1870’s California without a heavy hand. There’s a message about the harsh realities of the world, prejudices, and ignorance. But mostly, there are messages about acceptance, tolerance and seeing people for who they are; people – no matter where they come from, the colour of their skin, or who they love. Ever-timely messages. Highly recommended reading for ages fourteen to…one hundred and fourteen!