Jamie Ford's Songs of Willow Frost is a tender, deeply felt novel set in Seattle during the 1920s and the subsequent Great Depression. Twelve-year-old William Eng knows he has not always lived at Sacred Heart Orphanage, because he remembers a mother who loved him. Since the orphanage withholds information about the parents of its residents, though, William does not know why his mother gave him up. On their assigned communal birthday, the orphans take a field trip to the movies, and William can't believe his eyes when Willow Frost appears onscreen. He's certain the actress is his long-absent mother, Liu Song, whose name translates to "willow" in English.
When he learns Willow Frost will be performing in Seattle, William longs to go to her, but running away from the orphanage is difficult. His best friend Charlotte, who is blind but sees the reality of their situation, aids him. No white couple wants to adopt a Chinese boy like William, and Charlotte has her own family demons to flee. Together, the children brave the sad and dangerous streets of Depression-era Seattle, but when William comes face-to-face with Willow, he learns her past--and his own--are far more complicated than a simple question of love.
Interwoven with William's story is that of his mother, Liu Song, a beautiful young girl whose mother's death leaves her at the mercy of a cruel stepfather and his coarse wife. The unexpected friendship of a handsome Chinese man who understudied her father in the Peking opera inspires Liu Song to dream of a better future, but the realities of her situation as an unwed Asian mother in the 1920s hinder her progress.
As in his debut novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, Ford explores the effects of separation and the hope for reunion that keeps parted souls struggling on in life. He shows readers a time of poverty and sacrifice in the U.S., when children ended up in orphanages because their parents had to choose between giving them up or watching them starve to death, and a time of prejudice against women and minorities. Despite the harsh historical realities, though, the story ultimately yields redemption, hope and plentiful fodder for book club conversations. Ford's fans will fall in love all over again, and new readers are sure to find much to enjoy. --Jaclyn Fulwood
Shelf Talker: The story of a Chinese boy who believes he has found his long-lost mother is sure to be another book club hit.