Thursday, October 24, 2013

Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford

Jamie Ford researches a book like nobody’s business. His meticulous archival digging resulted in his wildly popular debut novel, The Hotel at the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. In his second novel, Songs of Willow Frost, he mines 1920s and ‘30s Seattle as carefully as earlier settlers dissected the west for gold. Ford’s research uncovered many heroes and villains of Seattle’s Film Row and Chinatown as well as theaters,  racetracks, and the very real Sacred Heart Orphanage.

The book opens on William Eng’s twelfth birthday in 1934. It’s not his actual birthday but at the Sacred Heart Orphanage it’s easier to celebrate all the boys’ birthdays on the same date, September 28, Pope Leo XII’s birthday.  On this day each boy receives a gift, either a saved letter from home or in William’s case, information about his mother.  William learns that on the last day he saw her as she lay bleeding and perhaps dying, his mother was sent to a sanitarium instead of a hospital because as a Chinese unwed mother doctors refused to treat her.  So on this day William has hope that his mother may be alive. The treat for the boys’ birthday is an outing to the movies where just before the movie begins a beautiful woman who looks exactly like William’s mother appears and sings a song. Thus William begins his quest to find “Willow Frost” the movie star who he’s certain is his mother.

William soon escapes from the orphanage with his best friend, Charlotte, a blind girl, who fears her father’s return more than life in the orphanage. Then the book backtracks to trace Willow Frost’s life and the men who abused her and ruined her early hopes and dreams. William’s evil stepfather is one of many one-dimensional caricatures she encounters. Sadly the book’s characters are difficult to discern as all of them have a flat affect and use the same overly sentimental language.

The novel is best when in settings that naturally use Ford’s painstaking research.  The sheet music store where Willow first sings in public, Seattle’s burgeoning Film Row, and the Wah-Mee Club offer an authentic glimpse of the era. Unfortunately, Ford’s contrived use of overtly emotional gimmicks like the orphaned blind girl overshadow the story.

Summing it Up:
Songs of Willow Frost provides intriguing details of Seattle’s Chinese-American community in the 1920s and ‘30s and of early film history which may help cinema and historical fiction fans enjoy the novel despite the flat, soap-opera-like characters.

Rating:   2 stars

Category: Fiction, Pigeon Pie, Super Nutrition

Publication date: September 10, 2013

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