News Column

'Willow Frost' tells of loss, redemption

October 11, 2013

YellowBrix

Oct. 11--'Songs of Willow Frost'

By Jamie Ford

331 pages, $26

Ballantine Book Novelist Jamie Ford hit the bestsellers list with his 2010 set-in-Seattle "Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet." Now he's back with another Northwest story, "Songs of Willow Frost."

The latest in what is a planned triology of Seattle-based stories, "Willow" spends a couple of chapters in Tacoma when the city was briefly a center of silent movie production.

The narrative, set in the 1920s and 1930s, follows a young American-born woman of Chinese descent as she deals with the loss of her family and the struggle to raise her son. "Hotel" chronicled a bittersweet childhood romance set during World War II Japanese internment.

"I like complicated family stories. I like stories of redemption and tragedies," Ford said during a phone interview from Los Angeles while on a recent book tour. "I didn't write with an agenda. I wanted to explore issues of loss and abandonment."

After enduring Dickensian-like hardship, the young woman in "Willow" apparently dies and her son, William, is sent to a Catholic orphanage. Then, during a rare Depression-era outing, William is certain he sees his now glamorous mother on a movie screen. When he learns that the singer-actress who calls herself Willow Frost is coming to Seattle, he schemes to escape the orphanage and learn the truth.

The story switches back and forth between the mother's story in the 1920s and William's story in the 1930s. It's during the 1920s when Ford takes the reader to Tacoma. Mixing fiction with fact, the novel's characters appear on the set of a real movie, 1927's "The Eyes of the Totem," that was filmed at various locations around Tacoma.

That film was one of only three made by Hollywood producer Harvey C. Weaver. He built a studio in the area of Titlow Beach in 1924 -- the largest outside Southern California at the time. "Totem" made use of the studio, Thornewood Castle, Mount Rainier, the brand new Winthrop Hotel, which still stands at Ninth and Broadway, and a totem pole erected in 1903.

That pole is still making news. Members of the Tacoma Landmarks Preservation Commission approved a plan last month to install a steel support system next to the 80-foot-tall wooden pole in Fireman's Park to keep it from falling over.

Ford said he visited Tacoma to get a feel for the area while writing his novel, but didn't know at the time that the pole was still standing. He figured it was just a prop made for the movie.

"A lot of what I wanted to see doesn't exist anymore," Ford said of his Tacoma travels. Neither, unfortunately, do any of the made-in-Tacoma films. "Like a lot of movies of that era, there are no surviving prints."

However, the Tacoma Public Library has a large collection of still photos from the three films made by the Weaver Studios: "Hearts and Fists," "The Heart of the Yukon" and "Totem." The last two were released in 1927 just before the first talkie, Al Jolson's "The Jazz Singer," was released. That film effectively ended the silent movie era and the Weaver studios. The studio was destroyed by fire in 1932.

Ford, who is of Chinese and European ancestry, used both family lore and research to paint a picture of life in the Northwest for Asian Americans in the early 20th century. When Ford researched the silent movie era in Washington, he learned about the Weaver studios in Tacoma.

"I had written this character of Willow Frost and I wanted to keep this story in the Northwest. I didn't want to move a chapter to LA."

"Eyes of the Totem" did use Chinese American actors, but Ford gave his characters more screen time in the novel's version of the film. To create scenes at Seattle's Wah Mee Club, Ford relied on family history for inspiration. His grandparents met at the club, which was the site of a mass killing in 1983. In addition to being a dealer at the club, his grandfather was an actor, mostly uncredited, in several films including 1946's "Duel in the Sun" and 1944's "The Keys of the Kingdom."

Ford's novel paints a picture of what life was like for both everyday Asian Americans in the Northwest as well as successful Asian American movie actors at the time. The picture is not always pretty.

Roles that should have gone to ethnic actors were given to white actors such as Swedish actor Warner Oland playing Charlie Chan. And garish stereotypes perpetrated by both actors of color like Stepin Fetchit and white actors like Mickey Rooney's Mr. Yunioshi in "Breakfast at Tiffany's" were common place. Ford takes the long view.

"It's a product of the time. I try not to retrofit today's sensibilities on the past," Ford said but adds, "The closer it gets to my own lifetime, the more it seems offensive. I go from blanching to being embarrassed to shaking my head."

Ford used the large canon of orphan experience to re-create daily life at the Catholic orphanage for young William. Many of the children at the orphanage were not there because their parents died but simply because they were abandoned, he said. Today, the orphanage is The Villa Academy, which Ford visited to get a feel for the place.

Ford's next book, still untitled, will be set mostly in 1959 but span the time between Seattle's two world fairs in 1909 and 1962.

Craig Sailor: 253-597-8541 craig.sailor@thenewstribune.com

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