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Monday, September 16, 2013

Book Review: Songs of Willow Frost

Book Type: plucky orphan story meets hardship of a Chinese American daughter

Stereotype Alert: meh.

Cover Art: It seems a bit foggy in here...

Bed/Bride/Bludgeon: Colin/Willow/Uncle Leo

Character Score: 6 out of 10 Mr. Micawbers

What's the Story?: Chinese American orphan William Eng knows his mother is out there somewhere... could she really be the glamorous movie star he's seen on the silver screen?

X-Factor: Movie history

Stereotype Alert: Yeah, I don't know.  Some of William's obstacles seem a little easily overcome, but the main meat of the story is what happened to Willow to make her put William in the orphanage.

Cover Art: Foggy Chinatown instead of London?  Whatever.  I was going to read this book regardless of the cover.

Bed/Bride/Bludgeon: Um, it is quite obvious that Colin is pretty hot.  And knows a lot about the world of cinema.  Poor Willow.  I'd like to think that her being married would have eliminated a lot of her strife, but we all know that marriage can sometimes be more harm than good and with Willows luck, it might have just ended up being more of the bad.  And Uncle Leo.  Uncle Leo, there is a special ring of hell with your name on it, buddy.  May your ancestors forever torment you in the afterlife.

Character Score: Above average.  I liked the voices of William and Willow.  And maybe Charlotte most of all.

What's the Story?:

Jamie Ford, author of Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, returns to his Seattle roots in his second novel Songs of Willow Frost.  First we meet William Eng, a lovable Chinese American orphan who lives at the Sacred Heart Orphanage.  All of the boy orphans are given the same birthday when they arrive at Sacred Heart- September 28th: coronation date of the honorable Pope Leo XII.  On this day, all of the boys are shepherded downtown to see a motion picture as a special birthday treat.  This year (1934) the boys are taken to a showing of Cimarron.  William hunkers down in his seat to share his popcorn and Orange Crush with his best friend when something unthinkable happens.  During the Follies reel, the audience meets a new actress with a sweet, sad voice: Willow Frost.  William is stunned.  Though he can’t explain how, he knows that the woman on the screen is in fact his mother whom he hasn’t seen in five years.  Shaken, William tries to ply information out of the sisters at Sacred Heart but to no avail.  He know his Ah-ma wouldn’t have abandoned him and believes that if he can just get out of the orphanage long enough to see her in person at an upcoming show, she’d take him home again.

Life in the orphanage is not easy.  But William knows that he has it a lot better than many orphans- some roam the streets begging, others are sent off to labor farms or to work in factories.  And while he feels the strong pull to run away from the orphanage in order to find his mother, he knows that if he is caught, he probably won’t be sent anywhere as nice as Sacred Heart.  Bolstered by his best friend, the adorable but blind Charlotte, the two hatch a plan to escape from the orphanage and trek to the 5th Avenue Theatre to see Willow. 

Charlotte and William manage to sneak out of Sacred Heart and even see Willow’s show.  Afterwards, they wait with a line of other admirers outside the Stage Door.  William gets Willows autograph and calls her Ah-ma and when the actress begins to cry William knows that he’s finally found his mother.  But she is whisked off in a taxi and William is left sitting in the alley for hours.  One of the performers takes pity on William and Charlotte and gives them backstage tickets for the next performance.  There, William gets a chance to speak with Willow before her next performance.  Unfortunately, Sister Briganti arrives to take the two orphans back to Sacred Heart before William can get all of the answers about his past.

Will William find Willow again?  Will he ever find out how he wound up at Sacred Heart?  But most importantly, does Willow still want her little boy?  Songs of Willow Frost is an interesting tale about the bond of parent and child, duty to society and the history of early motion pictures.  I was seriously afraid that Songs would be a Sophomore Slump type book.  Not so.  Granted, Songs doesn't combine the same number of interesting issues with the same amount of finesse as Hotel On the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, but this is a separate book set in a separate time.  I wasn't disappointed.  

X-Factor: I'm a sucker for the background on things I love.  Learning about the early days of film in Seattle (as opposed to Hollywood) was really cool.  I almost wish there'd been more back story for Colin just so I could find out more but, alas.  A nice historical touch.

Songs of Willow Frost is available wherever you can manage to buy a print book.


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