From Jamie Ford, author of the beloved Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, comes a much-anticipated second novel. Set against the backdrop of Depression-era Seattle, Songs of Willow Frost is a powerful tale of two souls—a boy with dreams for his future and a woman escaping her haunted past—both seeking love, hope, and forgiveness.
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Twelve-year-old William Eng, a Chinese American boy, has lived at Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage ever since his mother’s listless body was carried away from their small apartment five years ago. On his birthday—or rather, the day the nuns designate as his birthday—William and the other orphans are taken to the historical Moore Theatre, where William glimpses an actress on the silver screen who goes by the name of Willow Frost. Struck by her features, William is convinced that the movie star is his mother, Liu Song.
Determined to find Willow and prove that his mother is still alive, William escapes from Sacred Heart with his friend Charlotte. The pair navigate the streets of Seattle, where they must not only survive but confront the mysteries of William’s past and his connection to the exotic film star. The story of Willow Frost, however, is far more complicated than the Hollywood fantasy William sees onscreen.
Shifting between the Great Depression and the 1920s, Songs of Willow Frost takes readers on an emotional journey of discovery. Jamie Ford’s sweeping novel will resonate with anyone who has ever longed for the comforts of family and a place to call home.
Praise for Songs of Willow Frost
“If you liked Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, you’re going to love Songs of Willow Frost. . . . tender, powerful, and deeply satisfying.”—Lisa Genova
“[A] poignant tale of lost and found love.”—Tampa Bay Times
“Arresting . . . [with] the kind of ending readers always hope for, but seldom get.”—The Dallas Morning News
“[An] achingly tender story . . . a tale of nuance and emotion.”—The Providence Journal
“Ford crafts [a] beautiful, tender tale of love transcending the sins people perpetrate on one another and shows how the strength of our primal relationships is the best part of our human nature.”—Great Falls Tribune
“Remarkable . . . likely to appeal to readers who enjoy the multi-generational novels of Amy Tan.”—Bookreporter
“Jamie Ford is a first-rate novelist, and with Songs of Willow Frost he takes a great leap forward and demonstrates the uncanny ability to move me to tears.”—Pat Conroy
“With vivid detail, Jamie Ford brings to life Seattle’s Chinatown during the Depression and chronicles the high price those desperate times exacted from an orphaned boy and the woman he believes is his mother. Songs of Willow Frost is about innocence and the loss of it, about longing, about the power of remembered love.”—Nancy Horan, author of Loving Frank
“Ford’s boundless compassion for the human spirit, in all its strengths and weaknesses, makes him one of our most unique and compelling storytellers.”—Helen Simonson, author of Major Pettigrew’s Last Stand
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About the Author
Read an Excerpt
William Eng woke to the sound of a snapping leather belt and the shrieking of rusty springs that supported the threadbare mattress of his army surplus bed. He kept his eyes closed as he listened to the bare feet of children, shuffling nervously on the cold wooden floor. He heard the popping and billowing of sheets being pulled back, like trade winds filling a canvas sail. And so he drifted, on the favoring currents of his imagination, as he always did, to someplace else—anywhere but the Sacred Heart Orphanage, where the sisters inspected the linens every morning and began whipping the bed wetters.
He would have sat up if he could, stood at attention at the foot of his bunk, like the others, but his hands were tied—literally—to the bed frame.
“I told you it would work,” Sister Briganti said to a pair of orderlies whose dark skin looked even darker against their starched white uniforms.
Sister Briganti’s theory was that bed-wetting was caused by boys illicitly touching themselves. So at bedtime she began tying the boys’ shoes to their wrists. When that failed, she tied their wrists to their beds.
“It’s a miracle,” she said as she poked and prodded the dry sheets between William’s legs. He watched as she crossed herself, then paused, sniffing her fingers, as though seeking evidence her eyes and hands might not reveal. Amen, William thought when he realized his bedding was dry. He knew that, like an orphaned child, Sister Briganti had learned to expect the worst. And she was rarely, if ever, disappointed.
After the boys were untied, the last offending child punished, and the crying abated, William was finally allowed to wash before breakfast. He stared at the long row of identical toothbrushes and washcloths that hung from matching hooks. Last night there had been forty, but now one set was missing and rumors immediately spread among the boys as to who the runaway might be.
Tommy Yuen. William knew the answer as he scanned the washroom and didn’t see another matching face. Tommy must have fled in the night. That makes me the only Chinese boy left at Sacred Heart.
The sadness and isolation he might have felt was muted by a morning free from the belt, replaced by the hopeful smiles the other boys made as they washed their faces.
“Happy birthday, Willie,” a freckle-faced boy said as he passed by. Others sang or whistled the birthday song. It was September 28, 1934, William’s twelfth birthday—everyone’s birthday, in fact—apparently it was much easier to keep track of this way.
Armistice Day might be more fitting, William thought. Since some of the older kids at Sacred Heart had lost their fathers in the Great War, or October 29—Black Tuesday, when the entire country had fallen on hard times. Since the Crash, the number of orphans had tripled. But Sister Briganti had chosen the coronation of Venerable Pope Leo XII as everyone’s new day of celebration—a collective birthday, which meant a trolley ride from Laurelhurst to downtown, where the boys would be given buffalo nickels to spend at the candy butcher before being treated to a talking picture at the Moore Theatre.
But best of all, William thought, on our birthdays and, only on our birthdays, are we allowed to ask about our mothers.
Birthday mass was always the longest of the year, even longer than the Christmas Vigil—for the boys anyway. William sat trying not to fidget, listening to Father Bartholomew go on and on and on and on and on about the Blessed Virgin, as if she could distract the boys from their big day. The girls sat on their side of the church, either oblivious to the boys’ one day out each year or achingly jealous. But either way, talks about the Holy Mother only confused the younger, newer residents, most of whom weren’t real orphans—at least not in the way Little Orphan Annie was depicted on the radio or in the Sunday funnies. Unlike the little mop-haired girl who gleefully squealed “Gee whiskers!” at any calamity, most of the boys and girls at Sacred Heart still had parents out there—somewhere—but wherever they were, they’d been unable to put food in their children’s mouths or shoes on their feet. That’s how Dante Grimaldi came to us, William reflected as he looked around the chapel. After Dante’s father was killed in a logging accident, his mother had let him play in the toy department of the Wonder Store—the big Woolworth’s on Third Avenue—and she never came back. Sunny Sixkiller last saw his ma in the children’s section of the new Carnegie Library in Snohomish, while Charlotte Rigg was found sitting in the rain on the marble steps of St. James Cathedral. Rumor was that her grandmother had lit a candle for her and even went to confession before slipping out a side door. Then there were others—the fortunate ones. Their mothers came and signed manifolds of carbon paper, entrusting their children to the sisters of Sacred Heart, or St. Paul Infants’ Home next door. There were always promises to come back in a week for a visit, and sometimes they did, but more often than not, that week stretched into a month, sometimes a year, sometimes forever. And yet, all of their moms had pledged (in front of Sister Briganti and God) to return one day.
After communion William stood with a tasteless wafer still stuck to the roof of his mouth, waiting in line with the other boys outside the school office. Each year, Mother Angelini, the prioress of Sa- cred Heart, would assess the boys physically and spiritually. If they passed muster, they’d be allowed out in public. William tried not to twitch or act too anxious. He attempted to look happy and presentable, mimicking the hopeful, joyful smiles of the others. But then he remembered the last time he saw his mother. She was in the bathtub of their apartment in the old Bush Hotel. William had woken up, wandered down the hall for a glass of water, and realized that she’d been in there for hours. He waited a few minutes more, but then at 12:01 a.m. he finally peeked through the rusty keyhole. It looked as though she were sleeping in the claw-foot tub, her face tilted toward the door; a strand of wet black hair clung to her pale cheek, the curl of a question mark. One arm lazily dangled over the edge, water slowly dripping from her fingertip. A single lightbulb hung from the ceiling, flickering on and off as the wind blew. After shouting and pounding on the door to no avail, William ran across the street to Dr. Luke, who lived above his office. The doctor jimmied the lock and wrapped towels around William’s mother, carrying her down two flights of stairs and into a waiting taxi, bound for Providence Hospital.
He left me alone, William thought, remembering the pinkish bathwater that gurgled and swirled down the drain. On the bottom of the tub he’d found a bar of Ivory soap and a single lacquered chopstick. The wide end had been inlaid with shimmering layers of abalone. But the pointed end looked sharp, and he wondered what it was doing there.
“You can go in now, Willie,” Sister Briganti said, snapping her fingers.
William held the door as Sunny walked out; his cheeks were cherry red and his sleeves were wet and shiny from wiping his nose. “Your turn, Will,” he half-sniffled, half-grumbled. He gripped a letter in his hand, then crumpled the envelope as if to throw it away, then paused, stuffing the letter in his back pocket.
“What’d it say?” another boy asked, but Sunny shook his head and walked down the hallway, staring at the floor. Letters from parents were rare, not because they didn’t come—they did—but because the sisters didn’t let the boys have them. They were saved and doled out as rewards for good behavior or as precious gifts on birthdays and religious holidays, though some gifts were better than others. Some were hopeful reminders of a family that still wanted them. Others were written confirmations of another lonely year.
Mother Angelini was all smiles as William walked in and sat down, but the stained-glass window behind her oaken desk was open and the room felt cold and drafty. The only warmth that William felt came from the seat of the padded leather chair that had moments before been occupied, weighed down by the expectations of another boy.
“Happy birthday,” she said as her spidery, wrinkled fingers paged through a thick ledger as though searching for his name. “How are you today . . . William?” She looked up, over her dusty spectacles. “This is your fifth birthday with us, isn’t it? Which makes you how old in the canon?”
Mother Angelini always asked the boys’ ages in relation to books from the Septuagint. William quickly rattled off, “Genesis, Exodus, Leviticus . . .” on up to Second Kings. He’d memorized his way only to the Book of Judith, when he’d turn eighteen and take his leave from the orphanage. Because the Book of Judith represented his own personal exodus, he’d read it over and over, until he imagined Judith as his forebear—a heroic, tragic widow, courted by many, who remained unmarried for the rest of her life. But he also read it because that particular book was semiofficial, semicanonical—more parable than truth, like the stories he’d heard about his own, long-lost parent.
“Well done, Master William,” Mother Angelini said. “Well done. Twelve is a marvelous age—the precipice of adult responsibility. Don’t think of yourself as a teenager. Think of yourself as a young man. That’s more fitting, don’t you think?”
He nodded, inhaling the smell of rain-soaked wool and Mentholatum, trying not to hope for a letter or even a lousy postcard. He failed miserably in the attempt.
“Well, I know that most of you are anxious for word from the outside—that God’s mysteries have blessed your parents with work, and a roof, and bread, and a warm fire, and that someone might come back for you,” the old nun said with a delicate voice, shaking her head as the skin beneath her chin shook like a turkey’s wattle. “But . . .” She glanced at her ledger. “We know that’s not possible in your situation, don’t we, dear?”
It seems that’s all I know. “Yes, Mother Angelini.” William swallowed hard, nodding. “I suppose, since this is my birthday, I’d just like to know more. I have so many memories from when I was little, but no one’s ever told me what happened to her.”
The last time he saw her he’d been seven years old. His mother had half-whispered, half-slurred, “I’ll be right back,” as she had been carried out the door, though he might have imagined this. But he didn’t imagine the police officer, an enormous mountain of a man who showed up the next day. William remembered him eating a handful of his mother’s butter-almond cookies and being very patient while he packed. Then William had climbed into the sidecar of the policeman’s motorcycle and they drove to a receiving home. William had waved to his old friends, like he was riding a float in Seattle’s Golden Potlatch Parade, not realizing that he was waving goodbye. A week later the sisters came and took him in. If I had known I’d never see my apartment again, I’d have taken some of my toys, or at least a photo.
William tried not to stare as Mother Angelini’s tongue darted at the corner of her mouth. She read the ledger and a note card with an official-looking seal that had been glued to the page. “William, because you are old enough, I will tell you what I can, even though it pains me to do so.”
That my mother is dead, William thought, absently. He’d accepted that as a likely outcome years ago, when they told him her condition had worsened and that she was never coming back. Just as he accepted that his father would always be unknown. In fact, William had been forbidden to ever speak of him.
Reading Group Guide
A Conversation with Jamie Ford
Random House Reader’s Circle: Your first novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, has been described as “a wartime-era Chinese-Japanese variation on Romeo and Juliet” (The Seattle Times). In what ways is Songs of Willow Frost a different kind of love story, and why did you want to turn to this narrative next?
Jamie Ford: If I were to create a perfume, it would come in a cracked bottle and be called “Abandonment.” That’s how Songs of Willow Frost opens. It’s another love story—and while there are boy-meets- girl aspects to the tale, the real love story is about a mother and her son, and about how two people can be so close yet so far away from each other, and ultimately so misunderstood. I don’t think we ever really understand our parents until they’re gone—at least that’s been my experience. William feels that loss, and it affects him profoundly. But then he has something many of us don’t get—the opportunity to find his mother again, to see her through new eyes.
RHRC: William is on a birthday outing with the Sacred Heart Orphanage when he sees a film star whose face and voice remind him of his long-lost mother, Liu Song. What was the role of orphanages during the Great Depression? Why would he suspect that she is still alive?
JF: When I began researching orphanages during the Great Depression, I was blown away by how many orphans still had living parents (because that sort of defies the definition of an orphan, right?).
What I discovered was that two thirds of the kids in Seattle’s orphanages had at least one parent still living. Parents who could no longer support them would take their kids to places like the Sacred Heart Orphanage, or in a few tragic cases abandon their children in public buildings, knowing they would eventually be remanded into state custody. Author Wallace Stegner was one of these orphans. His mother left him and his brother at Sacred Heart—the orphanage featured in Songs of Willow Frost, which still stands today— and returned a year later.
So it’s not at all unusual for William to suspect that his mother might be out there, somewhere. Whether that hope makes it easier or harder for him and his fellow children in the long run—that’s the question.
RHRC: William has to venture into Depression-era Seattle in order to find her—and he travels there in a creative way. Did you always intend for William to escape from Sacred Heart in a bookmobile?
JF: Sometimes reality is too wonderful to be denied. In this case, Seattle’s first bookmobile hit the streets in 1931 with six hundred books, and it actually visited Sacred Heart, so it became the perfect getaway vehicle, both literally and metaphorically. Sadly, the Depression caught up to the bookmobile, and the program was cut near the end of 1932. (Has there ever been an era when libraries haven’t had their budgets cut?). Bookmobile service resumed in 1947.
RHRC: Based in part on the first Chinese American movie star Anna May Wong, Liu Song—or Willow Frost, as she comes to be known—stands at a nexus point between Chinese and American culture and identity, between generations, and between the deep history of traditional Chinese theater and the newer landscape of American movie houses. What sorts of choices and challenges does she face as an Asian American woman navigating life in the 1920s and the early American film industry? To what extent does her path mirror and diverge from that of her mother’s?
JF: Anyone who is the child of immigrants eventually gets caught in a whirlpool of personal hopes, dreams, familial expectations, cultural mores, misconceptions, and at times, outright discrimination.
Willow comes from a culture that traditionally values women as mothers and little more—where women were banned from the theater, where men performed female roles onstage, and women associated with this form of entertainment were seen as less than chaste. But she’s also American-born, with opportunities within her reach but forever beyond her grasp. She’s too American for her Chinese suitors, but to men in the U.S. she’s viewed as an oddity at best and an object of desire at worst.
By becoming Willow, Liu Song is able to achieve the unfulfilled dreams of her parents, who were actors on stage—especially her mother—but even as Willow she’s limited. Like Anna May Wong, she can never be more than an exotic extra, condemned to be the villainess or victim. She always dies in her films, and is unable to find love on screen as well as in real life. For Lui Song, the success of Willow comes at a steep price.
RHRC: Willow breaks into the movie industry at a studio in Tacoma, Washington. What was the state’s role in early American film? Does it still bear the footprint of that era?
JF: Before the film industry coalesced in Southern California, there were viable studios in unusual places like Minnesota, Idaho, and even Tacoma, where H.C. Weaver Productions has long been forgotten.
Early in the research process I called the Washington Film Office, and they told me the first film shot in Washington State was Tugboat Annie (1933). I’d read about movie crews on Mt. Rainier around 1924, so I knew the film office information was off. I kept digging and found press clippings that led to the H.C. Weaver production stage, which at the time was the third-largest freestanding film space in America (the larger two were in Hollywood).
H.C. Weaver produced three films, Hearts and Fists (1926), Eyes of the Totem (1927), and The Heart of the Yukon (1927). These silent films were tied up in distribution and unfortunately released when talkies were overtaking their silent predecessors. The studio closed its doors as the Roaring Twenties stopped roaring. The building was converted into an enormous dance hall, which burned to the ground in 1932. The films have all been lost, though the Tacoma Public Library has a wonderful collection of production shots by Gaston Lance, the studio’s art director.
RHRC: Film is a constant artistic presence throughout the novel, but music—obviously—also runs through Songs of Willow Frost. What importance do you see music having for William and Liu Song? Did music play a role in your writing process?
JF: Liu Song is suffering in silence. In fact, women in general didn’t have a collective voice until the Nineteenth Amendment, when women were guaranteed the right to vote. So music is transcendent for Liu Song—it literally and metaphorically becomes her voice. And because of that, because of her singing, William recognizes her.
As far as music playing a role in the writing process, I always try to write for all five senses, so music becomes part of the tapestry of storytelling—plus, certain songs mark the time and echo the backstory of my characters. Like Irving Berlin’s “When I Lost You.”
RHRC: You have said that Liu Song/Willow is also an amalgamation of your own mother and Chinese grandmother. Are there particular real-life experiences that worked their way into your story, and what was it like to write with them in mind?
JF: I come from a family of big families. Both of my Chinese grandparents had more siblings than you could count on one hand, yet my father was an only child. The reason for that is because my Chinese grandmother had a backroom “procedure” that left her unable to bear more children.
And yet my grandmother was fierce. She was an alpha female at a time when it was perhaps culturally and socially unacceptable, but in America, as a U.S. citizen, she could become something different. That said, as a Chinese woman, she was still a minority within a minority, and unable to receive proper medical care.
My mom, on the other hand, was Caucasian. But she was dirt-poor—so poor that when she became pregnant with my oldest sister, she could only dream of giving birth in an actual hospital. That dream went unfulfilled, as her husband at the time gambled away the money she’d saved for the delivery. But, like my grandmother, she picked herself up after every setback, after every sacrifice.
There are elements of both of them in Willow—in the kinds of challenges she faces, and the determination with which she faces them and survives.
RHRC: Songs of Willow Frost provides “the kind of ending readers always hope for, but seldom get” (The Dallas Morning News). What do you think is the secret to a great ending?
JF: I see storytelling as making a contract with the reader. I’m promising a certain journey, and good or bad, happy or sad, I need to deliver in a satisfying way—completing the story. But I’m also a big fan of redemptive endings and the type of endings where it feels as though a new story is just beginning, one that belongs to the reader’s imagination.
RHRC: Your touring has taken you into a wide variety of venues— bookstores, libraries, literary festivals, community reads programs, walking tours, museums, Asian American organizations, ESL classes, high schools and colleges, writing workshops with faculty and inner-city youth, even men’s and women’s prisons. What are some of your favorite ways to connect with your fans both through and beyond events?
JF: I’m always up for unusual events, whether it’s meeting with a homeless book group or visiting a men’s medium security prison. But beyond that I thoroughly enjoy social media. The writing life is somewhat monastic, so it’s great to connect via Twitter, Facebook, Instagram—the usual suspects—and at jamieford.com, naturally.
RHRC: What do you hope readers take away from Songs of Willow Frost?
JF: I hope they’re equally entertained and enlightened. I hope they value their time spent with Willow and William. And I hope they see growth in me as a writer. Is that too much to hope for? I mean, before the Beatles wrote Abbey Road they were singing, “She loves you, yeah-yeah-yeah.”
We all have to start somewhere.
RHRC: Your novels are so richly detailed and clearly evoke Seattle in different historical periods. What does your research process for each novel look like? How do you bring each era to life?
JF: I collect a lot of ephemera, which is a fancy way of saying I have a very messy office filled with old maps, newspapers, magazines, theater handbills, postcards, and even old high school yearbooks (it’s amazing what you can find on eBay).
But I also spend time in places like the Wing Luke Museum and the Museum of History and Industry in Seattle. I get to put on the white archivist gloves and sift the historical sand, and every once in a while I’ll find a bone—some little obscure detail that will work its way into the story.
RHRC: Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet sold over 1.3 million copies, was on the New York Times bestseller list for more than two years, won the Asian Pacific American Award for Literature, and was even transformed into a popular stage play. Why do you think it resonated so deeply with readers across the country? Are there any particularly memorable or surprising reactions that you’d like to share?
JF: At its core, Hotel is a love story—or actually a love-lost-and-then-found story, which I think everyone can relate to on some level. There’s a reason why people try to lose twenty pounds before class reunions. There are just some people in our lives whom we love, and lose, and unfailingly long for. They orbit our hearts like Halley’s Comet, crossing into our universe only once, or if we’re lucky twice, in a lifetime.
Hotel also deals with race relations during an oft-forgotten period in U.S. history. As a researcher and storyteller, I like turning over rocks and looking at the squishy things underneath. I think others do, too.
As far as memorable reactions, here are three that immediately come to mind:
1. Being invited to the Minidoka Reunion (Minidoka was an internment camp outside Twin Falls, Idaho), where former internees had a karaoke night and sang “Don’t Fence Me In.”
2. Going to Norway and speaking to high school students who were assigned the book, which was surreal.
3. A sansei (third-generation Japanese American) woman sharing that she had read the book to her mother, a former internee, while she’d been in hospice, and that the book was the first time they’d talked about “camp.”
RHRC: What’s next for Jamie Ford?
JF: I’m currently working on a new novel about a boy who was raffled off at the 1909 World’s Fair in Seattle.
Oh, and I need a nap. I think I have one scheduled for next year.
1. William’s life at Sacred Heart is, he feels, a hard one. Do you agree? In the long run, do the caregivers at Sacred Heart do more to help or harm their young wards?
2. The orphans at Sacred Heart share a collective “birthday,” one for boys and one for girls. What would it be like to celebrate such an event? Would it feel less special without a focus on the individual, or even more joyful to share it with a community?
3. On May 4, 1931, the first bookmobile hit the streets of Seattle, where it did indeed visit the historical Sacred Heart Orphanage (as well as Boeing Field). Why do you think there was such a need to bring the library to its patrons, rather than allowing those patrons to visit the library as they chose?
4. What qualities does Liu Song share with her mother? How are their lives similar or different?
5. Does Liu Song’s mother represent strength, weakness, or a little of both? Do you think she knew she was a second wife?
6. Why doesn’t Liu Song study Cantonese Opera instead of pursuing a career in film and stage?
7. What do you think happened to Mr. Butterfield after the loss of his music store? Personally and professionally, how would he react to Liu Song’s newfound fame as Willow?
8. Imagine that you are Liu Song and pregnant under her circumstances. What would you do? Who might you tell? And would you keep the baby?
9. The novel explores the subject of abandonment, whether by willful desertion or by circumstance. What forms does such abandonment take among contemporary families?
10. In the time period the novel is set in, economic and social classes were clearly defined, and while change was desired by some, it was feared by others. Do you think the time we live in today is more just and fair, or are we in fact worse off?
11. The social worker Mrs. Peterson represents an outside authority at a time when mothers had fewer rights to their children than fathers. When did that begin to change and why?
12. During the early years of the silent-film era, studios and production companies could be found in most states. So why had much of the film industry congregated in Hollywood a decade later?
13. What factors contributed to the eventual demise of the grand movie palaces of the 1920s and ’30s?
14. Willow always knew where her son was, so why didn’t she come back sooner, especially as she gained success?
15. Why does Willow die in all of her films?
16. How do you think Charlotte’s death impacted Sister Briganti?
17. In the end, Willow comes back for William. What do you think happened to them after the novel’s conclusion? What happened to her career?
18. Overall, do you think the story is one of hope and promise or suffering and sacrifice?