Jamie Ford's new novel, Songs of Willow Frost, is set during the 1930s, the era of the Great Depression and the explosive growth of the movie industry. Both play a part in the book's poignant tale of lost and found love that reads like a heart-on-its-sleeve plot for one of the black-and-white films of the day.
Ford's first novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, became a bestseller on the strength of its evocative story of Japanese-Americans living in Seattle during World War II, when racism and wartime panic led to their internment. Songs of Willow Frost moves back a decade and more and focuses on Chinese-Americans, like Ford's own family, during the Depression.
This book too is set in Seattle, Ford's hometown. It opens with 12-year-old William Eng living at the Sacred Heart Orphanage north of the city. It's a grim place where many of the kids aren't really orphaned but have been left by parents who could no longer support them. At this Dickensian institution, the children eat buggy oatmeal, are locked overnight in closets for bad behavior, and are allowed to ask about their families only on their birthday. (For convenience's sake, all the boys have the same birthday by decree, all the girls another one.) The orphanage is run by Sister Briganti, a tough, ruler-wielding nun who curses fluently in Italian and Latin and keeps a bottle of something stronger than communion wine in her desk drawer.
William has been here for five years, ever since he found his beautiful young mother, Liu Song, semiconscious in the bathtub. She was taken away, and he hasn't seen her since, or heard a word about what happened to her. In honor of his 12th birthday Mother Angelini, the prioress, finally tells him: Liu Song was taken to the white hospital, which refused to treat her, and then to a mental asylum: "I'm afraid she never left."
William's despair turns to hope, though, during the boys' birthday treat: a matinee at the Moore Theatre, a downtown movie palace. There he sees a Movietone Follies reel featuring a glamorous Asian singer named Willow Frost. As she croons Dream a Little Dream of Me, William becomes more convinced with each note that he's looking at his long-lost mother.
When he finds out that Willow Frost will soon be appearing in Seattle in a traveling show, he decides to run away from the orphanage. He and his best friend, a blind girl named Charlotte, have been planning their escape for a while, and they manage it by hiding out in the back of a bookmobile. Navigating a bustling city with almost no money is a daunting prospect for a couple of kids, but William will find Willow Frost, and find out perhaps more than he wanted to know about her story and his own.
Ford gives us an interesting look at the booming movie industry, which had not yet concentrated in Hollywood — the Northwest was just one of several places where filmmaking thrived. Willow Frost is based in part on international film star Anna May Wong (her real name was Wong Liu Tsong), who made dozens of films in the 1920s and '30s. Ford includes another real film star, Stepin Fetchit, as Willow's friend. Fetchit's real name was Lincoln Perry, and like Wong he became a success by playing to ugly stereotypes — he was known as the "Laziest Man in the World" but became the first black actor to make a million dollars. Songs of Willow Frost gives us an idea of the emotional cost of racism for entertainers like these.
We also see Willow's life before she achieves fame. She loses both parents as a young girl, and race, gender and poverty are all factors that put her in a desperate corner.
But Songs of Willow Frost is not all struggle and sorrow; it's also a story of determination and resourcefulness, and of finding the right family. William may not find the "ah-ma" he remembers, but he learns who he is along the way.
Colette Bancroft can be reached at [email protected] or (727) 893-8435.