January 1, 2014
Vol: 21 No: 1

Arts & Entertainment

O, mother, where: In a novel set in Seattle in the 30s, a young Chinese orphan searches for a parent

by: Joe Martin , Guest Writer

Book Review: Songs of Willow Frost, By Jamie Ford

Illustration by Maia Brown

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A child abandoned is at the mercy of indifferent adults, cold institutions and rigid regulations far beyond the young one’s control or comprehension. Such is the cruel dilemma of 12-year-old William Eng, who was born in Seattle’s Chinatown in the early 1920s. Orphaned, he feels a deep sense of loss, of having little or no worth to anyone. Pensive and precocious, William is the only Chinese kid in Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage, run by an order of strict Catholic nuns. His fellow orphans share the pain and frustration of having been tossed aside and forgotten. Parents are unknown or deceased, indigent or incarcerated, while some are simply disinclined to provide any semblance of home to a child. 

On rare occasions, a parent returns to claim a son or daughter. Maybe once in a while a nice couple adopts one of the younger children. For most kids however, the orphanage is “home” until they run away or are old enough to leave, if death doesn’t claim them first. Though William knows nothing of his father, he has vague, affectionate memories of his mother, a kind, young woman who sang to him in a lovely voice. Would she ever return to him? Is she even alive?  “After five winters at Sacred Heart, he’d learned not to hope for a Christmas miracle — at least for nothing greater than a pair of hand-me-down shoes, a book of catechism, and a stocking filled with peanuts and a ripe tangerine.”  William asks himself, “What kind of bastard am I?”

Author Jamie Ford racked up impressive accolades for his first novel, “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet.”  He returns with “Songs of Willow Frost.”

It is 1934. The catastrophe of the Great Depression has settled heavily on a city hard hit by hard times. Many are unemployed and destitute. The encampment south of downtown has become home to growing numbers of persons with no economic purchase.  “A hand-painted banner hung across the road that read:  WELCOME TO HOOVERVILLE. WHERE LIFE IS STRIFE.” 

On the streets there are marches and militant calls for change, for jobs.  While some look for any kind of work, others are down, out and broken by unending misery.  Skid Road missions and flop houses are crammed with ragged, hungry specters of the jobless and desperate. “People were out of work and starving.  The pitiful conditions got so bad that hundreds had committed suicide, all over the city.”

Seattle is also replete with movie houses that provide those with a few spare coins a welcome escape into the marvelous distractions of film. One day, the boys from Sacred Heart and, “hundreds of other boys from various mission homes, institutions, and reformatories” are treated to a special excursion downtown and the cinematic western “Cimarron.” Despite his own meager attire William feels “awkward and overdressed” after noting the “prisonlike” uniforms of kids from the other places. The feature film is preceded by a steady flow of previews, cartoons and shorts. The last short features a beautiful Asian woman who croons “Dream a Little Dream of Me.”

William is mesmerized, “stunned silent, mouth agape, popcorn spilling.  The singer was introduced as Willow Frost — a stage name, William almost said out loud, it had to be.” At the end of her song, an advertisement flashes on the screen announcing that Willow and other performers will be soon appearing in person in Seattle. Then and there William is determined to figure a way to get to that show and meet her. “Because Willow Frost is a lot of things, William thought, a singer, a dancer, a movie star, but most of all, Willow Frost is my mother.” 

From Sacred Heart William can see the Smith Tower, the tallest building west of the Mississippi. He ponders how he can possibly venture back into that urban world by himself. It is a time when racial prejudice is commonplace and thoughtless denigrating slurs are uttered casually by many. A blind white girl named Charlotte is William’s closest friend at the orphanage. “For a girl without the benefit of eyesight, she was terribly perceptive.” Charlotte inspires William to fulfill his dream of finding Willow. She suggests that they run away together. William agonizes over his frantic desire to leave and the monumental challenge of a boy and blind girl surviving on their own. William has only one dollar. How could they possibly manage on that? Then Charlotte reveals that, over the years, she has fastidiously saved “Four dollars and fifty cents.” With their combined fortune they devise their escape.

This novel is both touching and wrenching. There are brute portrayals of cruelty and humiliation. Equally compelling are portrayals of loyalty and unconditional love. Read this splendid tale of an adolescent boy on his mission of redemption. “William didn’t know if his story had a moral to it.  Honestly, he didn’t care. He was going to find Willow Frost. All he wished for was a happy ending.” You will wish for that too.

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