by Jamie Ford
Historical fiction is a wonderful vehicle to learn about history. Jamie Ford sets Songs of Willow Frost in Seattle’s Chinatown during the Depression of the 1930s. In this specialized locality, the story takes us through desperation into hope on a very personal level. It centers around William Eng on his quest to find his ah-ma, who he believes is Willow Frost. The reader walks with William at the orphanage and on the streets of Seattle. We also learn of Willow’s struggles as a beautiful Chinese American in the early 1900s.
Ford proves his skill at weaving-a-yarn in a traditional literary fashion, while providing a history lesson of a part of America we don’t often consider. The historical context of Seattle’s Chinatown infuses every aspect of the story, while Ford compassionately gives readers an understanding of the culture and limitations of the times.
Flashbacks and descriptions of feelings, places and people abound. None of it is dry or devoid of interest however. Ford’s vision becomes real as he mixes memories into action scenes making them ever more poignant.
We believe the story’s truth. We hurt for the characters, and we deplore our collective history. Regardless, we read on–eager to know what happens.
Ford doesn’t let the reader down. He leaves us with tears, understanding and a hope for redemption. Thank you Jamie Ford for telling us Willow’s and William’s stories.
Chapter 1 Analysis
First chapters provide readers a sense of an author’s writing style and a promise of what will come. I started the week thinking I’d study the first chapter of a half-dozen books, but stopped. My study was sidetracked with Songs of Willow Frost in which Jamie Ford captured my empathy and interest with his depiction of an orphanage child in 1934 Seattle.
From the first line, “snapping leather belt and the shrieking of rusty springs”, I questioned the circumstances to come. Although this orphanage wake-up scene compels the reader to continue, Williams’s thoughts peak interest even more.
Long paragraphs of backstory including the brutality of being beaten for peeing in bed and memories of pre-orphanage days push readers out of a scene in order to explore varied facets of William’s life. For example in the boys birthday sojourn to the movies cryptic memories of finding his ah-ma in a bath tub, as well as growing up in the orphanage, interrupt and extend the scene.
Chapters often end with cliff-hangers. The first chapter’s ending leaves us wondering if the actress in the movie really could be his mom. Regardless, William’s quest is defined at that moment, when he becomes driven to find the actress.
Ford’s most popular novel is his first book published in 2009, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. It won the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature in 2010. He was also a runner-up for the 2009 Langum Prize for historical fiction and it was named the #1 Book Club Pick for Fall 2009/Winter 2010 by the American Booksellers Association. If you like Songs of Willow Frost, perhaps another of Ford’s books is in order.Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford
Published by Ballantine Books on September 10th 2013
Genres: Historical Fiction
Twelve-year-old William Eng, a Chinese-American boy, has lived at Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage ever since his mother’s listless body was carried away from their small apartment five years ago. On his birthday—or rather, the day the nuns designate as his birthday—William and the other orphans are taken to the historical Moore Theatre, where William glimpses an actress on the silver screen who goes by the name of Willow Frost. Struck by her features, William is convinced that the movie star is his mother, Liu Song.
Determined to find Willow, and prove his mother is still alive, William escapes from Sacred Heart with his friend Charlotte. The pair navigates the streets of Seattle, where they must not only survive, but confront the mysteries of William’s past and his connection to the exotic film star. The story of Willow Frost, however, is far more complicated than the Hollywood fantasy William sees onscreen.
Shifting between the Great Depression and the 1920s, Songs of Willow Frost takes readers on an emotional journey of discovery. Jamie Ford’s sweeping book will resonate with anyone who has ever longed for the comforts of family and a place to call home.