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Originally published Sunday, September 15, 2013 at 4:04 AM

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‘Songs of Willow Frost’: hard choices for a talented songbird

Jamie Ford’s new novel, “Songs of Willow Frost,” follows the fortunes and misfortunes of a talented single mother who must make a terrible choice as she ekes out a living in Depression-era Seattle.

Special to The Seattle Times

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‘Songs of Willow Frost’

by Jamie Ford

Ballantine, 352 pp., $26

Jamie Ford, author of the popular novel “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” is among the best around when it comes to archive spelunking. The man probably went through more pairs of white gloves than a parade’s worth of beauty queens as he did the research for his latest book, plumbing the collections of the Wing Luke Museum, the Museum of History & Industry, the University of Washington’s Pacific Northwest Labor and Civil Rights Project, and more.

And it shows on almost every page of his new novel, “Songs of Willow Frost.” The tale is richly laced with details about life in Seattle in the 1920s and 1930s. There are mentions of figures such as “Rum King” Roy Olmstead and pioneering filmmaker Nell Shipman, and references to a host of gone-but-not-quite-forgotten places including the Meadows Race Track, Frederick & Nelson and Seattle’s Film Row. Pivotal scenes take place at the Bush Hotel in the International District and Sacred Heart Orphanage in Laurelhurst, backstage at the 5th Avenue Theatre, and at the Wah Mee Club “in the belly of Maynard Alley.”

This mother-son saga is the second locally based story this year (Daniel James Brown’s nonfiction book “The Boys in the Boat” was the first) to reflect upon the harsh circumstances that caused many parents to give up their children during the Great Depression. But the novel “Songs of Willow Frost” also explores the realities of minority populations that had even fewer opportunities during the Great Depression than the white majority — less access to health care, to legal representation, to many types of work, and to food.

In some respects, Willow Frost becomes an exception. The daughter of Cantonese opera performers, both dead, she relies on her voice and acting talent to make a living, even as she unsuccessfully tries to fend off the unwanted advances of her widowed stepfather. When Willow becomes pregnant and gives birth to a boy — William — she realizes that she will lose her son to her reviled stepfather unless she can cut ties with him and make her own way.

But a handsome young Chinese actor who had been her ally is called back to China, and when the state eventually opines that as a single mother she is unfit to raise her son, Willow has no one left to advocate for her. In a last-ditch effort to prevent William from being seized by her stepfather, she leaves her beloved son at the Sacred Heart Orphanage and walks away for good.

“Songs of Willow Frost” twines together the story of how Willow tries but fails to keep her son, and young William’s quest a few years later to find his mother again. And this is where the author runs into trouble. Willow’s and William’s points of view aren’t differentiated enough. The boy’s quest is captured in the same sentimental language as his young mother’s struggles.

The story presents villains rather than antagonists, and stereotypical characterizations prevail. The writing does not live up to the fine potential of the story. In this reviewer’s opinion, that was a problem with Ford’s previous novel. So If you were a fan of “Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet,” you likewise may be satisfied with “Songs if Willow Frost.”

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