Book Reviews

The Celestial by Barry Brennessel at MLR Press

Genre Gay / Historical / 19th Century / Romance
Reviewed by Ron Fritsch on 20-October-2012

Book Blurb

Love was the last thing Todd Webster Morgan expected to find while searching for gold in 1870s California. But that was before he met Lao Jian.

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 and violent. 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.

Book Review

In 1871 nineteen-year-old Todd Morgan steals some of his mother’s money, leaves the plot of land they live on north of Sacramento with his uncle Ned Calvert, buys a horse, and heads for the Sierra Nevadas near Truckee to find gold. The money actually belonged to his father, who got himself killed in a barroom brawl.

Ned, Todd’s mother’s angry and bitter younger brother, who chose to fight and lose a leg for the losing side in the Civil War, has goaded his nephew into his impulsive and naive adventure. Todd’s search for gold and instant wealth ends in horrifying violence, leaving him with nothing but the clothes he wears.

Todd doesn’t discover any gold in his pan, but he does find Lao Jian, a young Chinese immigrant who is also prospecting for gold with his uncle. The title of Barry Brennessel’s page-turning novel derives from Americans of that day calling Chinese immigrants “celestials” because they came from what was known as the “Celestial Empire.”

Finding themselves in grave danger, Todd and Lao Jian flee Truckee together. The intense prejudice against both Chinese people and individuals desiring persons of their own sex force Todd and Lao Jian to fight what often appears to be a hopeless battle on two fronts.

Todd Morgan and Lao Jian aren’t without their flaws, but I found them wholly sympathetic. One could say they fight their battle on three fronts, the third being their disarming innocence in a world cruel beyond their imagination.

I loved reading this novel. It has a compelling story, believable characters, and artful writing. Todd, the narrator, says this about a young man he meets in the mountains (before he runs into Lao Jian): “It was like staring into a meadow in springtime, and your eyes just don’t want to work themselves free of the colors when the wildflowers dance in the breeze.”

Regarding both Chinese and Irish immigrants, Todd says, “The law sure took umbrage when the criminal was a foreigner, but looked the other way when the foreigner was a victim.”

The short last chapter is one of the finest epilogues I’ve read. The first line alone, a date, found me wiping my eyes so that I could read on.




DISCLAIMER: Books reviewed on this site were usually provided at no cost by the publisher or author. This book has been purchased by the reviewer.

Additional Information

Format ebook and print
Length Novel, 192 pages/54000 words
Heat Level
Publication Date 07-September-2012
Price $5.99 ebook, $12.99 paperback
Buy Link