by Jamie Ford
I'm not opposed to historical fiction. In fact, I find most of what I know about bygone eras has come to me through novels. That said, this month's Off the Shelf selection was an unexpected kind of historical fiction. One in which the history was new to me but the scenes were very familiar.
I should have expected that the author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet would have a gift for juxtaposition, but it caught me surprise nonetheless.
Like last month's selection, I purchased this title at a consignment store in Columbia. I paid $6 for it as a hardback. This past week, my editor and best friend Jodie and I were talking about purchasing used books. Since the author does not receive royalties from this practice, we are not big fans of it. In the case of a consignment store, however, the publisher isn't receiving payment either, just the previous book owner. I'm not sure where I stand on that.
Maybe I would just hate to think of my own book being parted with in such a way.
In any case, I pulled Songs of Willow Frost from the shelf for February and it only took me until the very last day of the month to actually finish it.
This story is about William, an 12-year-old Chinese boy in Sacred Heart Orphanage outside Seattle, Washington, in 1934. The opening scene is such a good one, we get an immediate sense of exactly what orphanage life is like. There's a kind of hard-knocks-life feel to it that it seems familiar. William's friendships with a Native American boy, Sunny, and a blind girl, Charlotte, are some of the best parts of this book.
Willow Frost is the Chinese film star William believes to be his mother. We get the two reunited and her story in two flashback sections of the book, telling us about her life after her father and brothers die of Spanish Flu and her mother must remarry a real jerk to protect them. The Spanish Flu seems familiar -- plague, quarantine, face masks, fear -- but this era of Seattle history is not something I've studied.
Once reunited, William and Willow each face important choices related to what they're willing to continue to accept and that might be my biggest challenge with the book. Neither William nor Willow seems to have agency until it is far too late.
What I loved
There's some good details about the conditions of city life in Seattle at that time and the drudgery that was life in and around the stock market crash. The businessman who employs Willow to sing on the sidewalk outside his music store as a marketing effort is a good, benevolent character. The nun in the orphanage is also a great character who gets a chance at forgiveness and redemption, one she makes good use of. I also liked the early history of moviemaking and film production. Good research showed through there.
There's a child's sense of confusion in the narrative that surrounds William, Sunny, and Charlotte. I think Jamie Ford does a good job of giving us their naiveté even as dangerous as it is. But Willow's equal naiveté is less gratifying.
What I didn't like
I wanted Willow to have more moxie. Especially after reading Ford's Author's Note regarding his late grandmother who was a strong "Alpha Female" in an era when to be so strong was not easy or welcome. I wanted Willow to make plans and struggle through failure. But she waited around. A lot. Kind of like William did. Maybe there's a beautiful parallel there, but it was frustrating and even boring in some places.
Should you read this
I liked Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet better, but Ford is a talented storyteller and spending time with anything he's delivered would be worthwhile.
So what did you read off your shelf in February? Leave a comment to share.