Songs of Willow Frost by Jamie Ford

Find in catalogThe Montana-based Chinese-American writer, Jamie Ford, whose 2009 debut, “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet” was a surprise best-seller, has just released his second novel: “Songs of Willow Frost.”

“Songs of Willow Frost” tells the story of American-born Liu Song, an unwed mother who became a minor movie star in the early film industry under the name of Willow Frost.  Using the backdrop of Seattle and Tacoma in the twenties and early thirties, Ford explores anti-Chinese discrimination, immigration law, parental rights, and the plight of orphans during the Great Depression, as well as the transition in the entertainment industry from live performance to the movies.  It’s fascinating stuff.

Reading Ford’s two novels back to back, I found many parallels in construction and writing style.  Both are meticulously researched with a strong sense of time and place, primarily featuring Seattle’s historic Chinatown.  “Hotel” deals with World War II internment of Japanese Americans and “Songs” with surviving the Great Depression.  Both novels are told in split narrative – alternating between different time periods, and from different points of view by gender and by age.  These narrative techniques, a strength in “Hotel,” were less successful in “Songs.”

“Songs of Willow Frost” tells of Willow’s early adulthood in the 1920s, alternating with twelve year old William’s story set in a 1934 orphanage.  For me, Ford’s tale only truly comes alive during Willow’s early years, when she is singing on the street to promote pianola sales, still hoping to create a successful life in America.  Unfortunately, Ford’s telling of Willow’s story was not compelling enough to sustain the narrative flow through the entire novel.  While there is much of interest here, some key plot points – such as Liu Song’s rejection of Colin’s offer, or William’s obsessive conviction that Willow is his mother – seemed insufficiently motivated.  I found much of the writing to be repetitive and emotionally detached, with many of the characters not fully developed.  And William’s story, a child’s view from only five years later, was a less successful vantage point than Henry’s 40-years mature perspective used in “Hotel.”

In the end, “Songs of Willow Frost” reads best, not as realistic historical fiction, but as one of the 1930s movie scripts featured in the book.  With the happy reunion on the last page, I can almost see the logo, “Filmed in Technicolor,” appearing on the screen as the music swells to a finale.  – Connie Bennett, Library Director

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