I'm going to start this review of Jamie Ford's Songs of Willow Frost by saying that I'm deeply sorry that I waited so long to read this book. I should have known by how much I enjoyed Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet that I would like this one too. Maybe I was afraid that it wouldn't match up. Regardless, this book is the equal of Hotel. Man, can Jamie write.
Here is what the book is about:
Set against the backdrop of Depression-era Seattle, Songs of Willow Frost is a powerful tale of two souls—a boy with dreams for his future and a woman escaping her haunted past—both seeking love, hope, and forgiveness.
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 everybody's 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.
Interesting premise, no? Hotel took place during WWII. This one switches back and forth from 1934, when William is 12, to 1921, with some 1929 thrown in. We see Willow Frost, nee Liu Song, as a teenager and then as a teenage mother. We get her background and history and that of her parents. It's just a fascinating portrayal. With Jamie's books, you connect to all of his characters, both positively, in most cases, and negatively, in a few.
You've seen in my reviews that, rarely, there are moments that make me yell out loud. This certainly happens in Willow Frost. On page 184 (out of 319), I actually said: "Oh, no, no, no. Oh God no." A little melodramatic perhaps? Could be. But I couldn't help myself. In fact, this development prompted me to email Jamie (I've met him and have had a little bit of correspondence with him) and tell him that I can't believe he did what he did. I also told him that we're through (I did back off that one a little bit). His response was basically "Bummer, dude," although he said it in a literary way.
As the backdrop for this book, I learned a ton about the early stages of moviemaking. And how it put live theater into the background. I certainly never knew that Seattle was one of the cities at the forefront of the whole burgeoning movie industry. How do I know that this is actually true, you ask? Well, I went right to the source - Jamie's Author's Note at the end of the book. Even though it was only 2 pages, it was very fact-filled about not only the early movies, but also about the big part that orphanages played during The Great Depression. I don't know if there's anything better than reading an excellent book and also get a history lesson. At least this is true for me.
Bottom line book fans? Read Songs of Willow Frost. You will thank me for it. Solid 3.5.
RANDOM NOTE (aren't they all?): When I stand in front of Recycle Bookstore on Sunday mornings, I always have Hotel sitting on the table as one of my recommendations. Now, the pile will include Songs, as long as the store has at least one copy of it.