Great Falls author Jamie Ford was combing through the newspaper articles about the Alaska-Yukon-Pacific Exposition of 1909 – the AYP – and unearthed a story about a raffle for an orphan.
Appalled and intrigued, the author’s imagination went to work conjuring this tale of a half-Chinese boy, sent by his dying mother to the United States aboard a slave ship. Shunted from poorhouses to state-run boarding schools, young Ernest eventually ends up as one of the prizes given at the AYP, “a healthy boy, free to a good family.”
He’s claimed by the flamboyant Madam Flora and taken to the Tenderloin, her elegant home in the Garment District, where her cultivated young Gibson Girls entertain gentlemen on a nightly basis.
A half century later, an elderly man contemplates another World’s Fair in Seattle and the memories it evokes of a young houseboy, and the two girls who became his closest friends and confidants. The fairs are “bookends, sentinels carved from stone, rooted in bedrock … His life, Gracie’s life, was the mystery caught in between.”
The elder Ernest wrestles with how to tell two adult daughters about his unsavory past, and worries how those memories might affect his ailing wife. His reflections are entwined with the story of young Ernest, who leads a charmed life in a home steeped in elegance, secrets and vice, even as suffragettes crowd the streets, castigating the saloons and whorehouses of the Garment District for their sinful ways.
The story takes an unflinching look at the plight of women and immigrants in the early 1900s – a turbulent time of desperate poverty, obscene wealth, and corrupt politicians.
Peopled with brave and vulnerable characters, the novel brims with love and wisdom, as Ernest discovers that “sometimes you need to feel everything to finally leave it behind, to have peace.”
Ford, who grew up in Seattle, is the author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet and Songs of Willow Frost.
His latest effort made the Library Journal’s list of the best historical fiction of 2017. Listen to an interview with the author on The Write Question.
– Kristi Niemeyer