The year is 1924. Willow Frost, aka Liu Song is a single mother living in Seattle, trying to make ends meet. When her mother died, Liu lived with her stepfather who impregnated her, but she never told him about the pregnancy. She left him and raised the child, William Eng, in secret. Meanwhile, she now has a boyfriend, Colin Kwan, and both of them are aspiring actors. Colin knew his way around, and he helped her get bit parts and showed her the ropes, hoping they would be discovered. William is crazy about Colin, and he is crazy about William. Suddenly, though, Colin’s father is taken ill. When he is summoned back to China, to take over the family business, she discovers he is also betrothed to another woman, in China. It is an arranged marriage made years ago. He promises to write and to return.
To make ends meet, when she can’t get acting jobs, Liu takes a job singing in a piano store. The economy is failing. When social service comes to interview her, and reveals that in the case of a single mother, if there is a husband he may legally claim custody of the child, Willow begs the woman not to reveal her child to Leo Eng, owner of the Jefferson Laundry, explaining he was her stepfather. The woman is a cold-hearted caricature of someone who should not be in the field of social service. She is judgmental, beset with prejudices and lacking in compassion, the very antithesis of the kind of person who would enhance the profession.
When Liu loses her job because of the depression, she becomes destitute and is forced to go to Leo Eng, who had previously threatened to take William from her. To keep her child, she agrees to work for him. She becomes his escort and accompanies him and accommodates him in business arrangements, in many ways. She would do anything for William. Soon, though, she discovers she is pregnant again. Before she begins to show, Colin returns and asks her to marry him, but he already has one wife in China. That very night, she suffers a miscarriage and passes out in the bathtub. William, who is just six years old, discovers her. She is taken to a hospital where the doctor refuses to treat her and sends her to a sanitarium. There, she is visited by the social worker again. She gives her a choice to give the child to her stepfather or an orphanage. She must give William up forever or she will not be released. Rather than see him with her stepfather, she gives him up to the orphanage.
Time passes and it is now 1934. William is 12 years old. In the orphanage, all the boys have a communal birthday, and on that day, they are allowed to speak about their family, and if there is a letter, one is chosen for them. Correspondence is not otherwise shared, since most of the children have been given up permanently, and the nuns do not believe they should have any contact with their families. On that day, they also go to see a movie and get special treats. While watching the movie, William recognizes the voice of an actress in the film. It is his mother. He had not realized she was still alive. Sunny, Williams very close friend, encourages William to find his mother. William also has a very dear friend, Charlotte, who is blind and who wants to run away with him. As those events play out, Sister Briganti decides to give William a letter from his mother. She also gives him money for transportation. His mother will meet him at the Bush Hotel, where they used to live.
Willow takes him to one of her films, explains all of the things that have happened to her that led her to give him up, and then she disappears, before the film ends. He returns to the orphanage and buries the newspaper article about his mother and a picture of his mother, at a close friend’s gravesite.
There is a pattern of injustice that runs through this story which, in hindsight, is difficult to justify in any way. The themes of hardship, poverty and despair during the time of the great depression, did not feel as well developed, but will touch the reader’s hearts. At the end, the author revealed that the book was based a bit on his own background, his family’s experiences and the experiences of the orphans during The Great Depression. The story is, therefore, enlightening, in many ways, in spite of the fact that I didn’t feel as engaged as I would have liked. I think the characters could have been more fully developed, since I did not feel the expected emotional attachment to them. I felt, rather, as if I was always skimming the surface of the story and not completely immersed in it. The tragic and traumatic events seemed to occur kind of matter-of-factly, and so I felt no connecting thread. I do believe, though, that the author exposed the biased atmosphere that existed in this country, and on the other side of the coin, he revealed an atmosphere in which there was a refusal to give up the hope of having one’s dreams come true. Also, the reader did an admirable job.