“We don’t get to choose our parents,” says an orphan about halfway through Jamie Ford’s moving and heart-wrenching new novel, Songs of Willow Frost. “If we did, some of us might choose never to be born at all.”
Opening in Seattle in the 1934, Songs of Willow Frost is the story of William Eng, a 12-year old orphan who, upon visiting a local movie theater, sees a glamorous Chinese screen goddess, the eponymous Willow Frost, and is at once convinced she’s his ah-ma, the mother who gave him up for adoption.
As the histories of William and Willow unfold, the world of pre and post-depression era Seattle springs to life in Ford’s deft, accessible prose. Ford is generous with period details, especially with the music of the era, which serves to underscore some of the emotional passages of story. He evokes geography, food, clothing, and the film industry, in ways that are essential to the fiber of the story but never pedantic.
The story grabs the reader from the opening pages with a skillful combination of plot and character development. It’s also a glimpse into a unique period in history, which, in the book’s illuminating author’s note, Ford explains, “William and Willow’s tale is also a reflection of an early Chinatown, where minority mothers were not allowed in ‘white’ hospitals…These are the things we don’t remember, but there are also things we wish we could forget.”
Ford convincingly captures the ambiguities within his characters’ lives. “Because the uncomfortable truth is that no one is all bad, or all good,” Ford writes. “Everyone…was a confusing mixture of love and hate, joy and sorrow, longing and forgetting, misguided truth and painful deception.”
Ultimately, Songs of Willow Frost is about this mixture and the ties that bind us to the past. In the hands of a less talented author, it could have descended into schmaltzy melodrama. Instead, Ford creates a masterful and emotionally moving novel that’s rewarding and completely engaging.