“Songs of Willow Frost”
By Jamie Ford
Jamie Ford’s debut “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” was on the New York Times bestseller list for two years, sold more than 1.3 million copies and won the Asian Pacific American Award for Literature. It was one of the most popular selections for book clubs all across the country.
Bitter and sweet aptly describes the theme in his second novel, “Songs of Willow Frost,” another love story of determination and survival, but this time about a mother and son.
William Eng is a 12-year-old orphan whose vivid memories of his mother “ah-ma” lead him on a grand adventure to make sense of his abandonment. His mother, Liu Song (stage name: Willow Frost), is an American-born daughter of Chinese immigrants. Her story unfolds in subsequent chapters. Ford has said the character Liu Song is an amalgamation of his own poor Caucasian mother and his fierce “alpha-female” Chinese grandmother. Real-life challenges and sacrifices of these women become prominent aspects of the story.
Ford has commented that people never really understand their parents until they’re gone. William experiences abandonment and loss, but gets something that only appears in Disney movies and fairytales — the opportunity to find his mother again and to see her through new eyes.
My one criticism would be the novel’s use of stereotypical heroes and villains — the evil, drunken stepfather; the lovely but abused songstress; the handsome and noble young actor; the poor but earnest orphan boy. The characters feel like they’ve been plucked from a soap opera. However, Ford’s meticulous research into Depression-era Seattle and early silent-era films lends a vivid sense of time and place, proving an entertaining, enlightening, oft-forgotten story of class and culture for Chinese-Americans.
Ultimately, the thematic question driving “Songs of Willow Frost” is universal and beats in the heart of every literary character from Oliver Twist to Orphan Annie — “Am I truly loved?”