By Caitlin Callaghan
Early on in Jamie Ford’s new novel, Songs of Willow Frost, William Eng, the twelve year-old protagonist, is about to run away from Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage with his best friend, Charlotte. As they are on the verge of making their escape, Charlotte reminds William that one of the nuns who cared for them used to say that all great stories have a moral. William, considering this, “didn’t know if his story had a moral to it. Honestly, he didn’t care […] All he wished for was a happy ending.”
Whether or not William’s individual story possesses a moral or a happy ending would be an interesting question to pose to any reader of Songs of Willow Frost; it is certainly clear that many of the other characters’ story-lines do possess morals, for example, and that many of them also concern William. And, like all stories, William’s does have an ending. What is interesting about this novel, however, is how little the question of a moral or a happy ending has to do with William’s own actions. He is his own agent who makes his own decisions, and he lies right at the center of the narrative. But his story is ultimately determined by the actions of everyone else in the book. This creates an interesting dynamic right at the heart of novel—even as he undertakes daring experiences, like running away from the orphanage, William and his fate are in the hands of others. Is this because he is minor? Is it because it is the 1930s and he has no money or resources? Is it because he is Chinese-American, and thus automatically marginalized by his race?
Songs of Willow Frost is a great read, and questions like these indicate how thought provoking this book is at its best. At times a page-turner, at others a quiet meditation on loss, this novel does an excellent job of evoking Depression-era Seattle, complete with a range of compelling characters. William is uncertain as to how exactly he ended up at Sacred Heart, other than that he was placed there when he was seven after discovering his single mother unconscious in their apartment. Whether his mother is alive or dead, whether or not anyone knows the identity of his father, whether a family will ever adopt him—these are the uncertainties that William has turned over in his mind in the five years that he has been at the orphanage. The other children with whom he lives share a range of similarly incomplete backgrounds—some had parents who could not afford them, others are orphans in the literal sense. His best friend, Charlotte, a blind girl, never wants to return to her father, though he is still alive; Sunny, another good friend of William’s, misses his mother, but knows that living on the streets would be worse than the meager existence they share at Sacred Heart. Jamie Ford’s kaleidoscopic depiction of these children is one of the book’s greatest attributes.
When William turns twelve, he sees a movie that features a Chinese actress named Willow Frost, and William becomes convinced that she is his mother. This plot twist is the impetus for William and Charlotte running away, and from this point the novel races forward, even as Ford juxtaposes the action with flashbacks to William’s mother, Liu Song, and the years of William’s early childhood. In the process, Ford paints a rich, detailed backdrop of Seattle in the 1920s and 1930s. This includes technological changes like those from horses to Model T’s, player pianos to radios, stage and opera to movies, as well as tactile elements like the sounds of Seattle’s Chinatown and the smell of its damp, coastal climate, the sight of the lush interior of a beautiful new movie theatre, and a glimpse of Prohibition-banned brandy bottles—all are seamlessly and interestingly woven into story. I particularly enjoyed the nuanced way in which Ford depicts the social history of this time period—as Ford reminds us, poverty was also widespread before the 1929 crash, racial and gender discrimination were rampant, and much of the desperation that Liu Song experiences is due to economic and social forces over which she has no control. William’s own occasional awareness of the fact that he is Chinese-American reflects the universal growing self-awareness of all adolescents, but is all the more poignant for the impending societal disapproval that will occur over his friendships with Charlotte, who is white, and Sunny, who is Native American, once they are no longer children.
The nuance that exists in Ford’s depiction of William’s self-awareness and the years during which he grew up, however, is missing in his treatment of the dialogue of most of the children in this novel. Many of them speak like actual grown-ups, as opposed to kids who are forced to be grown-up, and their polished thoughts and sentences can be unconvincing. For all the characters, Ford often uses italicized sentences to indicate a character’s interior thoughts, but this technique—though understandable from a structural standpoint—can be distracting for the reader. At other times, the language sinks into cliché, such as in the following line used to describe Charlotte: “For a girl without the benefit of eyesight, she was terribly perceptive.”
Most difficult to reconcile with is the great plot and characters alongside the novel’s general lack of complexity. Much of the story and many of the individuals who people it are ultimately two-dimensional, good or evil, even as Ford’s descriptions of them hint otherwise. Charlotte’s father, for example, is recognized as a man who “didn’t look like a felon or a monster […] he looked like an average father,” but the nuance ends there. Liu Song, in contrast, makes some decisions that, on their own, look like they could add new dimensions to her character, yet those actions never reveal a deeper complexity or ambiguity. Instead, like William, she remains a fundamentally good character whose life is decided by the actions of others.
Songs of Willow Frost is an enjoyable novel, particularly with regard to Ford’s vivid description of 1920s and 1930s Seattle; it is a beautiful complement to his first novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. What is missing in depth and complexity is made up for, to some extent, by an engaging story. As for whether or not the ending to William’s story turns out to be happy…that is for the reader to decide.
Songs of Willow Frost
By Jamie Ford
Ballantine Books; First Edition edition (September 10, 2013)