William awakens to yet another morning of beatings for bed-wetters at the Sacred Heart orphanage. In 1931, lots of children have been orphaned or left with the sisters because their parents could not care for them. William has little hope, but today is his birthday.
More precisely, today is every boy’s birthday, since the sisters find it more convenient to celebrate them all on September 28, Pope Leo XII’s own birthday. As is custom, each boy is given a sort of present, either a letter from home, kept back for this very occasion, or in William’s case, more information about his mother. His last memory is of finding her in the bathtub, her fingertips dripping water onto the floor, the bathwater draining away strangely pink. On this, his 12th birthday, Sister Angelini reveals that doctors refused to treat his mother—because she was Chinese and because she had a shady reputation—so she was taken to a sanitarium. William, confused by the news, joins the other boys on a trip to the theater. Just before the movie begins, a beautiful woman appears on screen, crooning in dulcet tones. William is stunned to realize that this Chinese woman looks exactly like his mother. Soon, William and his best friend, Charlotte (who is blind and determined never to return to her father), concoct a plan to escape the orphanage and find the mysterious singer named Willow Frost. Willow has her own sad tale, replete with sexism, abuse and broken promises. Ford (Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, 2009) writes of American life in the 1920s and ’30s, bustling with go-getters and burdened with trampled masses. Often muted and simplified, his prose underscores the emotional depression of his main characters; yet that same flatness tethers the tale, inhibiting lyricism.
A heartbreaking yet subdued story.