While this didn't move me quite as much as his previous novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, this was still a very well written novel that takes place in Depression-era Seattle. The novel begins with William Eng's twelfth birthday. Of course, it isn't actually his birthday but the nuns have decided it is easier to have all the boys share a birthday, and as usual they go on an outing to celebrate. Since it is the Depression, many of the orphans aren't actually orphans - their parents could no longer support or feed them and saw no other choice but to give them up. As the only Chinese boy (the other one ran away) at the orphanage, William feels very estranged from everyone but he has two friends, Sonny, the only Indian boy (Native American, it took me a chapter to catch on to that) who is possibly even lower on the food chain than William, and Charlotte, a blind girl, whose father is in jail, and may have to leave the orphanage soon to go to a special workhouse due to her age and disability.
As part of the outing, the boys get to see a movie, and on one of the pre-movie clips, William recognizes one of the performers, Willow Frost, as his mother. He believed that his mother was dead, and even remembers seeing her in a bathtub, filled with bloody water, but this shakes up his entire world. As it turns out, she is scheduled to perform in the area soon, and William is determined to see her. Surprisingly, Ford doesn't prolong the narrative with any speculation about whether Willow is his mother or throw further obstacles in his course. Despite everything, William manages to be at the theater opening night, and he makes contact with Willow.
It is from here that the story shifts its focus to Willow, or Liu Song. Ford does a great job of portraying how slim the support system was for immigrants in Seattle, especially if they didn't have an extended family. After her father dies, her mother remarries to support the two of them, and her step-father is absolutely horrible and controlling. Liu has no way to protect herself though she befriends a former student of her father's. As the Depression begins, her options become even more limited as she loses her job and way to support herself. Liu faces various prejudices because of her race, her gender and her job. Rather than help, the social worker is clearly set against her, and the novel portrays misunderstandings, and an intolerant system that leaves Liu with little opportunity and options.
The utter failure of the system can also be seen at the orphanage as there are parents that truly shouldn't be parents, and yet their children have no say in whether or not they shall return home. While there is a bit of a love story for Willow, the main focus is on her and her relationship with her son. Everything else comes second to her which is obvious once the story turns to Willow's perspective. As a result, I was quite involved to see how the story would develop and how it would explain William's placement in the Catholic orphanage. While it didn't resonate in the same way as Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, it still had quite an emotional impact (I can't decide if one of the moments in the novel is emotionally manipulative or not - it made sense in the novel but that doesn't mean it can't still be manipulative), and I really enjoyed reading Willow's part of the story, which also discussed the 1920's movie industry and Hollywood.