Songs of Willow Frost: A Novel

Songs of Willow Frost: A Novel

by Jamie Ford

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Product Details

ISBN-13: 9780345522047
Publisher: Random House Publishing Group
Publication date: 09/10/2013
Sold by: Random House
Format: NOOK Book
Pages: 352
Sales rank: 96,354
File size: 3 MB

About the Author

The son of a Chinese American father, Jamie Ford is the author of the New York Times bestselling novel Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which won the Asian-Pacific American Award for Literature. Having grown up in Seattle, he now lives in Montana with his wife and children.

Read an Excerpt

Sacred Hearts


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.

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Songs of Willow Frost: A Novel 4.3 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 69 reviews.
Ronrose More than 1 year ago
Songs of Willow Frost will play on your heart strings. At times heavy and melancholy, at times light and uplifting, it will surely bring a tear to your eye and a smile to your lips. There are two tales here, intricately entwined. The first is the story of an American born Chinese boy, William Eng, just twelve years old. He has spent the last five years in an orphanage in Seattle. His single hope is that his mother will return and take him home. While on a rare outing to the local motion picture theater with the other orphans, William sees a woman on the silver screen who he is convinced is his mother. Her name is Willow Frost. He becomes obsessed with the idea of leaving the orphanage and finding her. The story of Willow Frost is a complicated one. Could this woman who has become a seemingly glamorous motion picture star have been the same young unwed mother who struggled for years against all odds in the close knit Chinese community of Seattle to raise her young son? This highly entertaining book was provided for review by the well read folks at Ballantine Books.
wiseowlMN More than 1 year ago
This book is an historical fiction story that I am sure could absolutely have happened, maybe minus the somewhat happy ending for some of the characters. Thank goodness there was some happiness at the end. Anyone familiar with adoption and history will be able to relate to much of the book, and learn from the story. Important information to know and understand about the time of the Great Depression and such communities like in Seattle at that time. Read Jamie Ford's first book first, though.
RonnaL More than 1 year ago
The true treasure of this masterful novel is the atmosphere of the times and cultures of the characters created by Jamie Ford.  Willow tells her story as a first generation American born Chinese living in the mixed cultures of the true Chinese, the new Americanized Chinese and all those non-Chinese people who populate Washington state during the 1920-30's time frame.  That in itself creates a classic tale.  Then add in abuse, lack of real family, and ambitions beyond the traditional role for a young Chinese girl, and feelings become a major character in this story. Willow's son's story is very similar, but so very different.  William was Willow's son, and his story is told from by him as a twelve year old living in an orphanage since he was seven years old.  William thought he had no living parents until he saw his mother on the screen at a birthday outing from the orphanage.  Then he had to find her and learn about who he really was.  Jamie Ford does an expert job of telling this story going from Willow to William and back again.  Their story is so sad that this book could have been just too maudlin to endure, but Ford's skill at invoking just the perfect amount of pathos with strong willed survival and dreams of family love, that my heart and emotions were pulled along by both characters.  Their hopes and dreams became my hopes and dreams.  A must read to help understand a time and culture in America! 
Anne-reads-to-much More than 1 year ago
Enjoying the book so far, the author Jamie Ford , writing is amazing..
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Though I really enjoyed this book ,it did not come up to expectations. I found "The corner of Bitter and Sweet" much more informative and interesting This book might be a good choice for book clubs.
loloofaz More than 1 year ago
Liked it a lot but his first novel Corner of Bitter and Sweet was much better
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This is a wonderful read - truly bitter sweet - but with a perfect ending.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I dont know why all of the lamebrained off topic postings. This book is worthy of better! It is a good read by a great author.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wondeful book and very well written
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
That was so beautiful! It made me cry!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
...I am totally hooked on the book now and upset I am no longer on vacation with as much time to read as I would like. It's a very sad story, however, with lots of harsh realities that some folks may not care for. But the characters are very real to me and I want so much to know what happens to Willow and William at the end. Not a disappointment at all and more than worth giving it time to move a bit.
bongie More than 1 year ago
Well written and this author has a wonderful way of getting you into the story quickly. The main characters are Willow and her son William. I struggled with the last 75 pges as they blurred tog. from going on about Willow's blight. I was glad when it ended. Hope this author writes more books and keeps up his talent as he does a great job of putting his words on paper.a
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pretty good book, but hard for me to really get into. I did love the historical part of the story, and would love to learn more about that time period. I would recommend this book to anyone who loves historical fiction.
lsmeadows More than 1 year ago
Songs of Willow Frost is the poignant story of 12 year-old orphan William Eng and the beautiful Asian actress, Willow Frost. While on a field trip to the theater from the orphanage where he lives, William is surprised to recognize the famous actress. You see, William knew her when she was just an Asian beauty living in Seattle's Chinatown and going by the name of Lui Song. William becomes convinced that he has to meet Willow, to see if she still recognizes him. When she does, both Willow and William are thrust back into the stories of their past. This book worked for me on several levels. The story flowed well, keeping me interested in the pages to come. Although I liked the part when William was in the orphanage, and I liked this relationship with Charlotte, by far my favorite part of the book was when Willow was telling the story about her life as Lui Song. I thought that her story painted a really good picture of what life would have been like for someone in her position, containing just the right amount of sorrow and depression without being too negative. In addition, I liked the way that her story highlighted the prejudices of the time period, and the strictness of the Asian culture. One of the things that especially spoke to me was the way that William ended up in the orphanage. This book takes place during a time period when many families could not support themselves and resorted to leaving their children in an orphanage. My own grandmother and her brothers and sisters were dropped at an orphanage for that reason. Things were different then, and for some families, this is the only way that they could cope. For that reason, I really appreciated the way that the orphanage in this book was portrayed, and the decisions that Willow had to make regarding William and what was best for both of them. Although the ending of the book was a bit ambiguous, given the history of the time and the culture that William and Willow belonged to, I thought that it fit the story. A lot of people have said that, although they liked this book, it was not as good and Jamie Ford's debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. I, myself, have not read that book, so I cannot speak to how this one stacks up, but for me, this book was a beautifully written and wonderful trip into a time and culture that I can only read about. For that reason, I give it 4 stars and would recommend it as a must read book. Thanks to Ballantine Books and Netgalley for making this book available to me in exchange for a review.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I greatly enjoyed this book. It tugs at your heart strings the entire time. In fact, it breaks your heart a few times during the story. It also shows how common sense can unfortunately take a back seat to cultural beliefs - you want to just shake some sense into Willow.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
A great choice for our ski trip over Thanksgiving, didn't want to put it down. I really enjoyed it cover to cover as I did "On The Corner of Bitter and Sweet". Looking forward to more stories from this writer.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This was a "can't out it down" kind of story. A coming of age tale of a young Chinese boy in the 30s Seattle. The story is told in flashbacks to his mother's story. Compelling, interesting, and well written.
DubaiReader1 More than 1 year ago
Seattle in the early 1900s. This was an interesting view into two eras of American history, as seen from the point of view of an American born Chinese girl and her estranged son. We join the narrative in 1934, as The Depression leaves thousands destitute. Twelve year old William is a resident of Sacred Heart Orphanage, yearning for a mother whom he hasn't seen for five years. As his mother narrates events in 1921, soon after the influenza epidemic, we learn how circumstances shaped her life and that of her son and resulted in their separation. The lowly status of unmarried mothers at that time, especially amongst the Chinese community, along with the disdain shown to actresses and entertainers, leaves Liu Song with few choices. Meanwhile, William yearns for the love and affection of the mother he still vaguely remembers, while living day to day amongst the other orphans of Sacred Heart. The various attitudes of the time were perfectly depicted and I could well imagine life in Seattle during those austere years. However, I was disappointed by the ending, which was unresolved, and by some of the interactions throughout the book, which felt a bit gappy. The character of Colin, Liu Song's beau, underwent a sudden transformation, and something didn't quite work for me between Liu Song, her step father, Leo, and his first wife, Auntie Eng. Having said that, the book provided an interesting book group discussion, unanimously receiving 3.5 out of 5.
TheStephanieLoves More than 1 year ago
Maybe it was his imagination. Or perhaps he was daydreaming once again. But William knew he had to meet [Willow Frost] in person, because he had once known her by another name—he was sure of it. With his next-door neighbors in Chinatown, she went by Liu Song, but he'd simply called her Ah-ma. He had to say those words again. He had to know if she'd hear his voice—if she'd recognize him from five long years away. On an outing to Seattle's Moore Theatre, 12-year-old William Eng—the only Chinese-American orphan at Sacred Heart—is stunned to catch onscreen, the familiar face of well-admired actress and "Oriental beauty," Willow Frost, whom he, five years ago, knew by another name: mother. Songs of Willow Frost is a sensationally crafted novel that follows William's search for his carefully buried roots, spurned by the kind of familial longing only known as a child's unconditional love, and the ghosts and demons of his mother's past that he discovers along the way. The narrative shifts between the Great Depression and the technological revolution of the early 1920s, offering both William's real, raw perspective of Chinese-American life, as well as Liu Song's shining voice—her invaluable song. There are just so many things I loved about this book! It's distressing how I can't list them all off at the same time, but I'll begin with the characters. William's naïveté is tender, and will make your heart ache. At once hopeful and painfully mature, his narrative gives rich glimpses of what it must have been like to be an abandoned child during the Great Depression—who were dubbed "orphans" like he was, and were not at all uncommon during this time—and is so emotionally well rendered. Liu Song is the character who has committed a mother's most atrocious crime by abandoning her child, but once her side of the story is told—and with it, William's mysterious past unraveled—we see nothing but the compromised woman with a crushing sadness, the brave, beautiful performer who sacrificed everything to salvage her son. While William's story is profound, Liu Song's is haunting, debilitating. She is so real and so human; I related to her in so many ways, which is the magic of her complex and alluring characterization in that she is exonerated because we as readers want to forgive her—we want to understand. Ford effectively evokes the glamor of pre-Depression 1921, which enshrouded the magic of theatre and the rise of the radio star, and even transitioning to later years, conveys the grayness of the Great Depression in tandem with the emergence of Hollywood's Golden Era—which is to say, film over theatre, or Willow Frost over Liu Song. I am amazed at how culturally rich and historically vibrant Ford's Seattle Chinatown is; I lived, breathed, and loved these characters and this setting. The story is also extremely stylistically impressive; Ford writes with great sensitivity and deep beauty in the tenderest way that induces shivers and raises goosebumps. In Willow's distraught confession, plea for forgiveness, and imminent personal departure, her past's troubles, her largest of sacrifices, and ultimately, her desire to rise up from cowering behind the façades of both the stage and screen, are intimately, agonizingly revealed... all in order to give everything to the one person she will never cease to love: her son. Pros: Breathtaking historical scenery—colorful and lush descriptions of 1920s- and 30s-era Seattle // William and Willow are gorgeously characterized; both are lovable AND complex // Intriguing story with unique backdrop // Insight into both early 20th-century Chinese culture and Chinese-American expectations // Lovely in style... I could read Jamie Ford's prose forever! // Poignant, heartbreaking // Evocative of a mother's love; well-developed (albeit convoluted) mother-son relationship portrayed Cons: Occasionally, scenes dragged out and grew boring, but this was not that big of a problem for me, and it was mostly just in the beginning Verdict: Lacerating, expressive, and beautifully melancholic, Jamie Ford's long-anticipated second novel unfalteringly trails young William Eng as he determinedly sets out to unearth a slew of family secrets and a home for his perpetually expectant heart. With stunning insight on a desolate, but regardless exquisite mother-child relationship, and magnificent attention to period detail, Songs of Willow Frost is a stirring, tumultuous, and ultimately triumphant story of one mother's struggle to stay afloat under immense societal scrutiny and Chinese-influenced expectation, and how although that survival may become her weakness and her desperation, it will never diminish her overwhelming love. Rating: 9 out of 10 hearts (4 stars): Loved it! This book has a spot on my favorites shelf. Source: Complimentary copy provided by publisher via tour publicist in exchange for an honest and unbiased review (thank you, Random House and TLC!)
Anonymous 5 months ago
I enjoyed the story of Willow Frost. Well written ,so interesting it was hard to put down.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Saddest book I've ever read, but a great read. Book filled with a lot of tragedy and gives you insight into the Asian American experience in the past. HIghly recommend
DoranneLongPTMS More than 1 year ago
I have been waiting for years, for another novel by Jamie Ford, after reading Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet. In Songs of Willow Frost, we are provided a haunting glimpse into life of the minority poor in the 1920s and 30s. Jamie reminds us we know not why others do what they do, and we might do the same if we were in their shoes.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I read this book for my book club - very dark and drawn out in the beginning but then the story took flight and was interesting and informative about the time period in Seattle for the Chinese population. It is unusual for a male author to write in a woman's voice; it was very interesting. If you are looking for something a little different, not the same old mystery of love story, try this book. It kept my interest until the end.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Chpico More than 1 year ago
Beautifully written story.