Twelve-year-old William Eng only has vague memories of his Ah-ma, the mother he adored before, in the wake of her troubling illness, he was taken to the Sacred Heart Orphanage outside Seattle. After all, that was five years ago, nearly half his lifetime. Now William is alone, or practically so; his best friends are a blind girl named Charlotte and an American Indian boy named Sunny. The three of them --- each a misfit or outcast in his or her own way --- all have their own stories of how they came to the orphanage, stories that are colored by the version of the truth told by Sister Briganti and the other nuns.
"SONGS OF WILLOW FROST is sure to spark discussion --- and a desire to learn more about the people and places at the center of its remarkable stories."
Sister Briganti has always let William believe that his mother died years ago after being locked up in an institution. So when William and the other boys --- out in the city of Seattle for their once-yearly outing --- go to the movies, William can't believe his eyes when he sees his mother on screen in an advertisement for a live variety show that's coming to town. He remembers that she had a beautiful voice and was always a performer. Is it possible that Willow Frost, the gorgeous woman on the movie screen, is really his mother, alive and well? And if she is, why hasn't she ever tried to come and take him away from Sacred Heart? William and Charlotte, who has her own reasons for wanting to escape the orphanage, go as far as running away to see Willow and find answers to William's questions.
William's quest to connect with Willow, set during the darkest days of the Great Depression, is told in alternating sections with Willow's own story, set during the heyday of the 1920s. Willow, known as a girl as Liu Song, helps support her family by singing popular songs --- and thereby selling sheet music and player pianos --- outside a music shop. However, when her mother dies and her fate is in her cruel stepfather's hands, her story changes dramatically. The daughter of two opera singers, Liu Song soon learns firsthand about the prejudices toward Chinese-Americans in general and performers in particular. But she will need to make difficult choices and take very real chances in order to try to preserve the little family she has left.
Like Jamie Ford's debut, HOTEL ON THE CORNER OF BITTER AND SWEET, SONGS OF WILLOW FROST sheds some light on a lesser-known period of Chinese-American history. Readers will be surprised to learn about the extent of the prejudices and pressures for William and Willow --- coming from both outside and even within their community. Those who enjoyed Ford's depiction of pre-adolescence in his first novel will also appreciate William and Charlotte's idealism and desire for security here. With its frank depiction of the minority experience in the early 20th century and its suspenseful approach to family secrets and lies, the book is also likely to appeal to readers who enjoy the multi-generational novels of Amy Tan.
SONGS OF WILLOW FROST is sure to spark discussion --- and a desire to learn more about the people and places at the center of its remarkable stories.
Reviewed by Norah Piehl on September 13, 2013