Songs of Willow Frost
Ford returns to Seattle for inspiration in his eagerly awaited second novel, after the wildly successful Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. This time, readers glimpse the city during the 1920s through the Great Depression. Twelve-year-old William Eng has lived at the Sacred Heart Orphanage for five years, ever since his mother, nightclub singer Liu Song, became ill and was carried out of their small Chinatown apartment. William doesn’t have many friends, other than two other outcasts: blind Charlotte Rigg, and Sunny Sixkiller, who also understands what it’s like to be teased for looking different. Life in an orphanage can be lonely and scary, and the residents have all had to face harsh realities, leaving childhood dreams behind. At an annual movie outing, though, William sees a miracle; his mother, or someone who looks and sounds just like her but is called Willow Song, is on the big screen. His resolve to find her, and to find out why she abandoned him, takes him and his friends into the dangerous, hardscrabble world of Skid Row and the seamy underside of vaudeville life.
Liu Song’s story is told in flashbacks, acquainting the reader with the equally undesirable aspects of Chinatown. Ford deftly, and heartbreakingly, illustrates the clashes between cultures, generations, and genders that resulted in Liu Song’s painful decision to send William to the orphanage. The scenes are not all bleak; there are moments of joy for Liu Song at Butterfield’s music store, and the arrival of the bookmobile at the orphanage is a transformative experience for many of the children. Pain and darkness are never far from the surface, however, and Ford has done an exceptional job of showcasing the struggles that immigrants and outsiders of all kinds faced during this period in history.