“You can’t expect children to sew their own gaping wounds without leaving a terrible scar.”
Five years ago, at the beginning of the Great Depression, twelve-year-old William Eng found his mother bleeding out in the bathtub of their apartment in the Bush Hotel in Seattle’s Chinatown. Since then, he has lived at Sacred Heart Orphanage under the watchful eye of Sister Briganti. Sometimes children are retrieved by their parents or adopted, but Chinese William, and his friends, Native American Sunny and blind Charlotte, have little hope of finding a new home. On a joint birthday outing for all the boys at the orphanage, William spots an Asian actress on screen who is a dead ringer for his mother, Liu Song. When he discovers that the actress, Willow Frost, will be coming through Seattle on tour, he sets out to meet her, determined to get the answers the nuns have so long denied him. Running away with Charlotte in tow, William learns the tragic and complicated story of how he came to live at Sacred Heart. The history he uncovers lays bare the plight of Chinese-Americans and Chinese immigrants in Depression-era Seattle.
Social injustice and oppression are rife in this story that begins in Seattle at the time of the Chinese Exclusion Act, and continues through the Great Depression. Even before the Depression, it was difficult for women to obtain legitimate employment, and the pay from the jobs that were available was meager. Non-white theatre-goers had to sit in a separate section, and coloured performers were relegated to the servants’ dining room of the venues that warmly receive their white counterparts. An American-born Chinese woman could not marry a white American, but risked losing her citizenship if she wed a man born in China. Poor women and members of minorities were subjected to involuntary sterilization at the hands of the state under the cover of medical aid. The list of atrocities is long, and historical remove turns the perpetrators of these injustices into flat, villainous caricatures.
With so many misfortunes in a single book, it is no surprise that most of the characters have more than one tragedy in their backstory. A tragic past is not the same thing as character development, but unfortunately Jamie Ford often treats it as such. While this certainly conveys the bleakness of the Depression, people who are little more than catalogues of tragedies make for unrealistic characters. William’s friend, and fellow runaway, Charlotte, is dealt with particularly unjustly. One of William’s few friends at Sacred Heart, she is the stereotype of a blind character, with acute hearing, and the ability to tell who has approached her without seeing them. Ford disposes of her quite callously when she is no longer useful to the story.
The main strengths of Songs of Willow Frost are historical colour and local interest strongly supported by Ford’s research (see the Author’s Note and Acknowledgements, particularly if you are local to Puget Sound and want to visit some of the museums and libraries that supported this project). William affects his escape from Sacred Heart in the back of the King County Library bookmobile, and the story stops at many recognizable Seattle landmarks, including Smith Tower’s Chinese Room. Ford neatly slips the developments in the film and music industries of the period, and other technological advances into the fabric of the story. Only occasionally does he get a little carried away, letting history overwhelm the narrative. Unfortunately, these real elements are frequently more interesting that the fiction that surrounds them.