Monday, May 19, 2014

400 (2014 #28). Songs of Willow Frost

by Jamie Ford

Chinese-American Jamie Ford has written another novel set in Seattle's Chinatown, this time in 1934, in the heart of the Depression, with flashbacks to the period from 1921-1926.

Twelve-year-old William Eng is a Chinese-American boy living in the Sacred Heart Orphanage in 1934.  Like many children in orphanages during that time period, he's not really an orphan - he knows his mother is still alive.  On an outing at the movies, he sees the Chinese-American actress Willow Frost on the screen - and knows immediately she is his mother.  When he learns she is going to be in town, he sets out to meet her.

We learn Willow Frost's story through a series of flashbacks to the period from 1921 to 1926.  The daughter of immigrants who were stars in the Chinese opera, the American-born Liu Song (which apparently means "willow" in English) loses her father in the flu epidemic, and her mother remarries to a crass Chinese laundryman.  After her mother dies, Liu Song is abused by her stepfather, but finally manages to escape him, scraping by singing songs for a player piano salesman by day, and as dance girl in the Wah Mee Club by night.  Through a series of tragic events and (often cultural) misunderstandings, she loses her five-year-old son William to the orphanage.

This is a sad story, much more so than Ford's first novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.  I found most of the characters to be believable, with the exception of William's blind friend Charlotte. The Seattle setting redeemed the book for me - the Sacred Heart Orphanage was a real place, now Villa Academy, founded by a saint, Mother Frances[ca] Xavier Cabrini.  The Bush Hotel and the once-tallest-in-Seattle Smith Tower (which really has a Chinese Room with a Wishing Chair) were just a few blocks from where I used to work downtown.  Some of the old theaters mentioned in the book still stand today.  The map at the beginning is appreciated, although I think the locations for some sites may be about a block off.

I thought it was especially interesting that Charlotte was blinded by a too-strong solution of silver nitrate put in her eyes after birth.  Apparently, a miracle attributed to St. Frances Cabrini involved a baby blinded by over-concentrated silver nitrate.

© Amanda Pape - 2014

[This book was borrowed and returned via interlibrary loan.]

No comments:

Post a Comment