Jamie Ford, debut author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, has returned with another touching story of Chinese-Americans in the Pacific Northwest. Songs of Willow Frost alternates between the 1920s and the 1930s as we learn how twelve year old William Eng has ended up at Seattle's Sacred Heart Orphanage. When he sees an advertisement for a new oriental singing and screen sensation named Willow Frost, William is sure that she is his mother Liu Song. Despite the nun's assurance that his mother is dead, William and his blind friend Charlotte escape, intending to meet the actress.
We learn, as William learns, that Liu Song has suffered not only from the harsh judgment and restraints of old world Chinese traditions, but also from America's racist attitudes. Those hardships and abuse forced every decisions she made, and ultimately, shaped William's lonely life at the orphanage. While telling this tale of essentially the love between a mother and her child, Ford also gives us windows into Chinese culture, the budding entertainment industry of the early twentieth century, and the gloomy existence of thousands of children who were left at orphanages during the Great Depression, often with the promise that their parents would return shortly. Shortly, too often, never arrived.
There have been several literary novels in the past decade centered around Chinese Americans. I always find them fascinating. The judgment and restraints thrust upon people coming from old traditions and superstitions run through all these novels, but there are also elements of beauty and grace. I am happy to say that Ford's stories also depict perseverance, strength, and sacrificial love.
I didn't expect that I would have the time or patience to finish a literary novel during this busy time of the year, but the story beckoned to me. I am glad that I took time to learn William and Willow Frost's stories. You should take the time also.