|“‘We all have things we don’t talk about, Ernest thought. ‘Even though, more often than not, these are the things that make us who we are.'”
Ford is the author of Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, which is one of my favorite novels, and so I was thrilled when I saw he had written another historical novel set in Seattle. Thanks go to Net Galley and Ballantine Books for the DRC, which I received free in exchange for this honest review.
Ernest is a small child when his mother, who is dying, wrenches herself away from him and puts him on a boat to the USA. He attends a charity boarding school and then is raffled off, a free orphan to a good home, by the Children’s Home Society at the Alaskan Pacific World’s Expo. It is Flora, the madam of a Seattle brothel, that claims him and brings him to the city. There he is essentially a house boy, and he forms a warm friendship with two young women employed there, Fahn and Maisie.
The narrative is divided between two time periods, the first following Ernest as he leaves China and arrives in the USA at the dawn of the twentieth century, and the second in the early 1960s when he is elderly and his wife, Gracie, is suffering from dementia. There’s an element of suspense that is artfully played as we follow both narratives, trying to untangle whether the woman that becomes “Gracie” is Maisie, Fahn, or some third person.
But Ford’s greatest strength is in bringing historical Seattle home to us. The characters are competently turned, but it’s setting that drives this book, just as it did his last one. Ernest lands in the city’s most notorious area at the time, a place just south of downtown known as the Tenderloin:
All told, this is good fiction, poignant, warm, and moving. Two things give me pause: the ending seems a little far-fetched, and the depiction of the suffragists, who are some of my greatest heroes, is so hostile that it borders on the misogynistic. However, the latter is peripheral to the main story, winking in and out briefly, and overall this novel is an appealing read. It will particularly appeal to Seattleites and to Asian-Americans.
I recommend this book to you, with the above caveats, and it for sale to the public today.
I have read every speck of fiction written by the man who calls himself GM Ford. Part of it is that he sets a good deal of his work in Seattle, and I was stunned to find him (in one or another of the Leo Waterman books) chasing a villain into my neighborhood, down my street, and when he turned and I read the description of the house in which the body was found, I thought…MY STARS! I KNOW WHICH HOUSE HE MEANS!
Okay. That won’t happen for most of you. But if you can track down the old Leo Waterman books (Ford’s earliest series), they are both riveting in their own right, and absolutely hysterical in places. I have always liked books that feature working class heroes. Some of Waterman’s friends are homeless men, and when he gets money, he takes them things. It’s sort of sweet, at the same time that the mystery is compelling, at the same time that it is, in a wry, clever way, very VERY funny!
I was heartbroken when he ended this series, and overjoyed to see him come back with Chump Change, his most recent release (see review). Consider this a generic endorsement of all of the Waterman books. His other series, with Frank Corso as protagonist, is well written, but not meant to be funny. It was good too, but ultimately, my heart belongs to Leo.
Droll, witty, and brilliantly written. If you can, get them all and read them in order!