Reviewed by David M. Kinchen
Has it really been that long between Jamie Ford’s debut novel “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” — which I raved about on Jan. 27, 2009 (http://archives.huntingtonnews.net/columns/090127-kinchen-columnsbookreview.html) and which became a monster bestseller — and his new novel “Songs of Willow Frost” (Ballantine, 352 pages, Readers Guide, $26.00)?
His first novel sold more than 1.3 million copies and was widely honored. I was surprised that there was no movie, as there was for another novel set in the Pacific Northwest, “Snow Falling on Cedars,” but “Hotel” was transformed into a stage play. If Jamie Ford’s fans are any indication, “Songs of Willow Frost” should do equally well. I believe that the included Readers Guide will convince book group people that this is an ideal book for their purposes.
“Songs of Willow Bay” is a remarkable achievement that will entertain and educate. If you have any feelings at all, the scenes between protagonist William Eng, 12, and his friend and fellow orphanage inmate Charlotte Rigg, a blind girl, will make you cry and laugh — sometimes at the same time!
I didn’t know the third largest movie studio in terms of square feet in the 1920s was in Tacoma, Washington, did you? It was the H.C. Weaver studio, now long gone from the city south of Seattle. The top two were in Hollywood.
I did know that Chicago in that era was a major motion picture production center, with the Essanay Film Studio one of the largest in the industry. Essanay, on Argyle Avenue in Uptown, introduced the cowboy hero in the form of Broncho Billy Anderson. For more about Anderson, born Maxwell Henry Aronson (1880-1971) and one of the founders of Essanay: http://en.wikipedia.org/wiki/Broncho_Billy_Anderson.
The original “Hollywood” was in northern New Jersey, near the site of Thomas Edison’s laboratories.
I’m going to avoid giving away much of the plot in this review, as I always do, because the joy of reading is the sudden shock of discovery, producing “Aha!” moments.
The novel toggles between the 1920s and 1934, when William Eng, a Chinese American boy, who has lived at Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage for the past five years, since 1929, begins his search for his mother. William and the other orphans are taken on a field trip to the historical Moore Theatre, where William sees a Chinese-American actress on the screen with the name “Willow Frost”. William is convinced that the movie star is his mother, Liu Song.
Determined to find Willow, who is in Seattle for a live appearance with other actors, Will escapes from the orphanage with Charlotte, who has her own reasons to leave: She’s about the be reunited with her father, just released from prison, and doesn’t look forward to this outcome.
Spoiler alert, you’ll get a kick out of how they elude the vigilant eyes of Sister Briganti, an earthy Italian woman who loves her cigarettes — and keeping her charges in the dark.
Charlotte and Will have a special, touching relationship that’s one of the best elements of the novel. The laugh and cry elements come to the fore as the two navigate the streets of Seattle, a city that plays its own important role in the novel. I’ve been to many of the places Ford cites in the novel, including the International District (Chinatown), where Liu Song (Willow) lives for a time in the Bush Fireproof Hotel on Jackson Street; First Hill; Pioneer Square and Union Station near the International District.
By now you should be able to get an idea of how I feel about “Songs of Willow Frost”. It’s a worthy follow-up love story to “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” and will, as I said at the beginning, entertain and educate. Seattle and the rest of the West Coast in the 1920s and ’30s were a long way from being the progressive places they are are perceived as today. Bigotry in the U.S. in that era was not by any description limited to the deep South.
About the Author
The son of a Chinese American father and a Caucasian mother, Jamie Ford is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet”, which won the Asian-Pacific American Award for Literature. He grew up in Seattle, and now lives in Montana with his wife and children. His website: www.jamieford.com
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If you’re in Portland OR next month, be sure and visit one of the treasures of the city, Powell’s City of Books on Burnside downtown, to see Jamie Ford talk about his novel. I’ve bought books at Powell’s and it’s as great as advertised, as the world’s largest book store. The event will be Thursday, Oct. 17 at 7:30 p.m.