Rating: 4 / 5
William Eng is a Chinese American boy living at the Sacred Heart Orphanage in Seattle during the Depression era. One day during a group outing he sees actress Willow Frost, and convinced she is his real mother, Liu Song. With the help of fellow orphan Charlotte, the two escape Sacred Heart to reconnect with Willow. With William’s journey to reunite with his mother and find out once and for all why she left him at the orphanage, he learns of Willow’s tragic past and hopes for redemption.
Songs of Willow Frost is divided into two perspectives. The novel starts with William’s point of view, his life at the orphanage, and his firm belief that as Willow is his mother, he does not belong at the orphanage. The other point of view is Willow’s, and her story spoke to me much more than William’s. Her life has always been filled with hardship, racism, dashed hopes, and unfulfilled promise. Since the story begins with William at the Sacred Heart Orphanage, the reader already knows that her story does not have a happy ending.
If I had to describe Songs of Willow Frost in one word, it would be sadness. The stigma that single, unwed mothers were burdened with is heartbreaking. In Willow’s case, there was always this underlying hopelessness with her, for it seemed that she was always dealt the worst possible hand, and no matter what she did, it would be barely enough to survive, but never enough to thrive. Willow and William are both victims of circumstances, and the story is painful and bitter. Willow has a special talent and stage presence, but at the time, singing was not seen as respectable career, and add to that the fact that Willow was not married and had a child, and it is easy to see how she had very little chance to succeed in life.
What makes Songs of Willow Frost resonate is the fact that even though there is so much heartbreak and sadness, Willow’s life is not far-fetched or unbelievable. The difficulties Willow and William both experienced were common and parallel many of the struggles and unfortunate realities that Chinese Americans faced during the Depression era. Songs of Willow Frost is memorable and wonderful narrative about love, duty, hope, and hardship. While it was difficult to get through, it was also moving and poignant. As probably the only person who read this one before Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, I’m going to have to put the latter on my TBR list.