From Goodreads: 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.
I loved Ford’s first book, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, and I love Songs of Willow Frost just as much. I read it in one weekend during which I might have slightly neglected my children. (Good thing my husband more than made up for my mental absence, or I would have felt guilty, considering the subject matter of this book.)
The book alternates between telling the story of William’s mother, Liu Song, or Willow Frost, and of William himself. I really like how the reader gets to know both sides of the story. First, we meet 12-year-old William during the Great Depression, and then his mother as a teenager in the Roaring Twenties. As the book moves back and forth between them, we can slowly fill in what happened between 1921 and 1934. We get confronted with racism, segregation, prejudice, and the social restrictions women had to face at the time.
What increases the impact of the story for me is the fact that I see William’s story through his eyes. Even though I, as the reader, can more or less predict why he’s in an orphanage, I still get to experience it through his perspective. How terrible to feel so helpless, so angry, and so unwanted, only to be told that “it was best for you.”
Who are we not to judge? William anguished. We’re taught to obey, to follow, to walk on the path illuminated by those older—wiser, experienced, more faithful. But what about parents who leave us—do we, as children, judge them? Am I supposed to regard the empty space in my heart as my own failing—my own inability to stop the bleeding caused by my mother? You can’t expect children to sew their own gaping wounds without leaving a terrible scar.
At times, he sounds older than 12 years to me, but maybe I am underestimating him. You would have to grow up fast if you’re an orphan with no hope of adoption simply because of the way you look.
While the story of the book is sad, the language is beautiful and a big part of why I enjoyed reading this book. (I think Ford likes the em-dash.) I also enjoyed all the historical details that are woven into the story. I didn’t know there was a fledgling movie industry in Seattle.
I am planning to read Graham Russell Gao Hodges book Anna May Wong: From Laundryman’s Daughter to Hollywood Legend, since Wong was mentioned in this book several times.
And just in case this review sounds a little bleak to you, let me assure you that there’s a “mote of hope” at the end.