What leads parents to abandon the children they love? In the Great Depression, the ranks of orphanages swelled with children whose parents couldn't support them. Jamie Ford's novel Songs of Willow Frost imagines the story of one of these children, starting when William Eng, a 12-year-old boy of Chinese descent, awakens to "the sound of a snapping leather belt and the shrieking of rusty springs that supported the threadbare mattress of his army surplus bed." Every morning, the nuns who run the orphanage inspect the children's sheets and whip the bedwetters.
It's a rude awakening, fitting for a gritty story that's beautifully told. Willow Frost is the second novel from Ford, a Chinese-American author who grew up in Seattle and now lives in Montana. His first, 2009's Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, about Asian-American experiences during WWII-era Seattle, was a New York Times bestseller and adapted into a stage play.
In Willow Frost, we learn that Eng was raised by a single mother. When he's 5 years old, he finds her nearly lifeless in the bathtub. She's rushed away by a doctor and William is sent to the orphanage, never to hear of her again until his 12th birthday, when the orphans are taken out to a movie theater. When a film reel shows a beautiful Chinese singer named Willow, he sits agape, positive that she is his mother. He becomes determined to run away from the orphanage and find her. The rest of Willow Frost alternates between William's life in 1934 and the backstory of his mother, Liu Song, the American-born daughter of Chinese opera performers.
Liu Song deals with a heartbreaking series of hard knocks that eventually lead to her abandoning William. As a teen, she loses her family to disease and illness, and is left under the care of her stepfather, an abusive rapist. She scares him away by posing as her mother's ghost, but discover she's pregnant and has to fend for herself as a singer and nightclub dancer.
Sometimes Willow Frost can seem a little too soap-opera tragic, but then again, Liu Song's story is no more dramatic than many real-life tales from the 1920s and the Depression. It was an era when women and people of color were second-class citizens. Catholic schools and orphanages perpetuated institutional cruelty. White hospitals wouldn't admit minority women, so Chinese women gave birth at home; the real-life restaurateur Ruby Chow was born on the fish dock where her father worked.
Ford depicts historic Seattle with a nearly photographic detail. At one point, Liu Song attends a production of the play A Chinese Honeymoon at the Empress Theater, where, "an eager crowd of patrons filled the three hundred seats, chatting and eating roasted almonds from sleeves of pink paper that turned silver when the houselights dimmed." The book is full of nostalgia for Seattle's neighborhoods and rainy days, too; Ford even slips in a reference to Frances Farmer.
Dark themes of sexual assault, incest, suicide and racism contrast with uplifting art and vibrant color, from Chinese opera to American vaudeville acts to the burgeoning film industry. The rich smells and sights of Seattle's Chinatown are throughout the story, from oyster sauce to barbecued chicken feet to hot steam buns.
For all the sadness in Willow Song, there is love and sweetness, too. Ford doesn't demonize even the worst of his characters. Instead, as William realizes, no one is all bad or all good. Rather, everyone is "a confusing mixture of love and hate, joy and sorrow, longing and forgetting, misguided truth and painful deception."
By the end of Willow Frost, there comes redemption for both William and his mother. The finale isn't pat or easy, but it offers us hope that even in hard times, love wins out.
Jamie Ford reads at the Wilma Theatre Sat., Oct. 12, at 7:30 PM, as part of the Festival of the Book gala with Tami Haaland, Richard Manning and Claire Vaye Watkins. Free.