Tag Archives: orphan

Book Review of Songs of Willow Frost

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 by Jamie FordDepression 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.

Book Review of Songs of Willow FrostSongs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford
Published by Ballantine Books on September 10th 2013
Genres: Historical Fiction
Pages: 331

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.

Book Review, salt to the sea by Ruth Sepetys

Historical Fiction for All Ages

The brutality of war from the civilian refugee perspective comes to life in Ruth Sepetys’ historical fiction novel salt to sea, the story of refugees evacuating Germany during WWII.

by Ruth SepetysRussia’s invasion of Germany comes alive through four refugee’s perspectives. While they flee, the atrocities behind their struggles and the secrets they carry haunt them. Joanne struggles to protect her travel companions, while nursing everyone she can. Alfred, a german soldier stationed on a ship, writes letters in his head. His love back home destined not to receives them.  Emilia, a fifteen year old polish girl who lost her family, fights the demons trapped in her mind. And Floria, a German civilian who saved Emilia’s life, distrusts everyone, especially himself, as he runs from the country he once honored.

Written in first person point-of-view, Sepetys’ story focuses on  individual refugee’s perceptions and internal struggles.  Short dialogue sequences capture interactions between them.

It’s clear a lot of research went into Sepetys’ plot, but she manages to create a story that touches the cord of humanity so deeply that the historical components of the story support the characters, rather than the other way around. It would do us well, however, to remember this harrowing piece of history lost in common knowledge.

Ruth Sepetys Writes for Writers

Beyond the integration of history in Sepetys’ story she offers much to learn for any writer. She uses every means she can to develop character. Note the sparse language used to create settings and establish emotions, while still driving the story forward.

Instead of each chapter telling what that person did, Sepetys often choses to develop characters through others’ observations. An example from Emilia’s chapter follows. “The shoe poet woke early, rapping our feet with his walking stick.”

Another example from Joanne’s perspective: “I had woke in the middle of the night and imagined I saw the German standing above me in the dark. When I blinked he was gone and I realized it was a dream.” or was it?

The climax wraps around the converted cruise ship Wilhelmina Gustoff. For pictures and a history of the Cruise Liner Wilhelm Gustloff check out feldgrau.com

Book Review, salt to the sea by Ruth SepetysSalt to the Sea by Ruta Sepetys
Published by Philomel Books on February 2nd 2016
Genres: Adventure, Historical Fiction, Romance, Young Adult
Pages: 393

Winter, 1945. Four teenagers. Four secrets.
Each one born of a different homeland; each one hunted, and haunted, by tragedy, lies…and war.
As thousands of desperate refugees flock to the coast in the midst of a Soviet advance, four paths converge, vying for passage aboard the Wilhelm Gustloff, a ship that promises safety and freedom.
Yet not all promises can be kept.
Inspired by the single greatest tragedy in maritime history, bestselling and award-winning author Ruta Sepetys (Between Shades of Gray) lifts the veil on a shockingly little-known casualty of World War II. An illuminating and life-affirming tale of heart and hope.