William Eng, a 12-year-old Chinese American, remembers his mother vividly, even though he has lived at Seattle’s Sacred Heart Orphanage since he was 7. When treated to a film with the other boys, he’s certain the captivating actress on screen, Willow Frost, is Liu Song, his beloved Ah-ma, who disappeared from his life five years before.
Great Falls author Jamie Ford returns to the turf of his first novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, portraying Seattle during the Great Depression, a landscape of “shantytowns, billboards calling for strikes and protests, and missionary kitchens in between, handing out free bread to bearded skeletons.”
As the story unfolds, Ford’s characters live in two worlds: Chinatown of the 1920s where a young woman is abused by her stepfather and bears his child, and Seattle of the 1930s, where films and theatre are the only reprieve from a desperate, impoverished reality.
William’s life at the orphanage is also harsh, but at least he has food, an education and two friends – an Indian boy and a blind girl. The nuns remind them daily that their fates could be much worse on the streets of Seattle, but still William escapes to seek his mother and unravel the mystery of her disappearance.
Willow tells William her story, how the daughter of a Cantonese opera singer, with a “thunderous contralto,” worked as a “song plugger,” earning a nickel for every piece of sheet music sold at the music store where she worked. When William was born, she struggled to support him in a community that already looked askance at single women – let alone musicians with illegitimate children.
Ford portrays a gritty city, where only the rich are immune from poverty, and where gender, race and handicaps are immutable liabilities. His story is most vibrant when he evokes Willow’s youth, the color and texture of Chinatown, and the life of a vulnerable street singer.
Ivan Doig calls Ford’s sophomore novel “another rich tapestry of history and family drama.” The author is the son of a Chinese American father and grew up in Seattle. His first novel won the Asian/Pacific American Award for Literature.
– Kristi Niemeyer