Jamie Ford’s sophomore novel, Songs of Willow Frost, centers on the unanticipated reunion between 12-year-old orphan, William Eng, and his mother, Liu Song — better known as Hollywood starlet, Willow Frost. Against the backdrop of Seattle’s Roaring ‘20s and Great Depression, Ford explores the dynamics of family relationships amidst anti-Chinese sentiment and the budding growth of the silver screen industry. With creativity and imagination, “Songs of Willow Frost” sends readers back to the glitz and glam of motion picture houses, talk radio and keep readers dreaming in Technicolor as they follow the mystery surrounding William’s abandonment and the secrets that Willow Frost keeps from the world.
Similar to Ford’s first novel, “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” the chronology of “Songs of Willow Frost” leaps between the present and flashbacks to Liu Song’s tumultuous early life. The novel opens with William and several other orphaned children celebrating their collective birthday by venturing outside the confines of the Sacred Heart Orphanage for their yearly field trip to the movies. Through film reels of cartoons and previews appeared Willow Frost, setting off a stream of William’s memories of his mother and a past life in Chinatown’s Bush Hotel. From that moment onward, William is determined to find Willow Frost in search of his mother, Liu Song. However, the meeting between mother and son is anything but joyous. Willow Frost’s past life as Liu Song unraveled, along with the identity of William’s father, and the bitter recollection of struggling to maintain a single-parent household in a merciless economy that hits women and Chinese people hard. “Songs of Willow Frost,” can be conceptualized as a son’s quest for his mother and a mother’s atonement for circumstantial transgressions, as well as a search for truth and answers.
Ford’s development of his main and minor characters are shallow and without any complexity, losing any form of human dimension and credibility over his fiction. In particular, the women portrayed in the novel fall into two generalizations: the white bitter lackey of men or the greater social institutions, or the socially marginalized whose sanity is deteriorates over time. The former is best exemplified through the sisters of the Sacred Heart Orphanage, the caretakers of the abandoned and orphaned children who watch over the children with a strict eye and enforce cruel psychological punishments, such as withholding information on their parents. Another female figure that fits this profile is Mrs. Peterson, the cold social worker who carries her prejudices and social convictions in her ledger.
The female prototype that Ford projects is the helpless lonely outsider who, over time, succumbs to insanity; both are depicted through Charlotte and the main character, Liu Song. Charlotte, one of William’s few friends in the orphanage, commits suicide after discovering that her father has been released from jail and will return to the orphanage to take her home. On the other hand, Liu Song is best visualized as a train wreck of tragedies haunted by loneliness. Not only did she watch her family slowly die off one by one to disease, but is incessantly pursued by her stepfather, reminding Willow Frost of her own inability to be a mother.
Furthermore, Ford casts the Asian male characters that interact the most with Liu Song in a negative light. First is Leo Eng, Liu Song’s stepfather, who slowly drained the life from Liu Song’s mother by selling her possessions and physically retained her to the bed as her body deteriorated. But Leo also takes advantage of Liu Song by reaping her wages and assaulting her.
In contrast, Liu Song’s love interest, Colin Kwan, isn’t the ideal prince. Colin, who is without a doubt a charmer, comes from a family of means and prestige that conflicts with his aspirations of becoming an actor. Although there is chemistry between Liu Song and Colin, Colin encases Liu Song in his memories of her mother. Colin continually compares Liu Song to her mother, rather than allowing Liu Song to develop her own individuality. Although Colin may appear as a gentleman and can sweep any girl off her feet, let’s remember that he is an actor and his best performance is keeping secrets from Liu Song, ultimately splitting the two apart. With the exception of William, there are no positive Asian male characters in “Songs of Willow Frost.” The only benevolent male figure is Mr. Butterfield, Liu Song’s white employer who is an old bachelor. For those who enjoyed Ford’s first novel, “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” you will enjoy the romance between Liu Song and Colin. Or perhaps, you will appreciate Ford’s in-depth research of Seattle’s small movie scene that will take you back to the Moore Theater’s heyday. But be warned, Ford fans. “Songs of Willow Frost” is not a novel of a young lover’s quest, but one of hardship, struggle and hope for a wounded family.