Chinese boy William lives in an orphanage in Seattle with his friends Sunny and blind Charlotte. One day, on a trip to a cinema, he sees his mother on the screen. Then he discovers she is coming to Seattle. So he runs away to meet her. With blind Charlotte. He wants to know why his mother abandoned him to the nuns. He feels betrayed. Slowly he learns to understand her back story.
This is a great book, told in very simple sentences and short chapters. William is a tough little boy; he is only twelve but he is very grown up for his years (although the first scene has him triumphing at not having wet the bed). He needs to be, for there is much for him to understand and to forgive. The banter between him and Native American ('prarie nigger') Sunny Sixkiller (who gets angry and suggests that of he gets his hands on a certain person he will change his name to Sunny Sevenkiller) is excellent. And blind Charlotte is a little saint, a little too good to be true.
The story of how and why William ended up in the orphanage involves understanding the battle between his mother and her Chinese heritage. Throughout the book we are faced with relics of the time; from the Hoovervilles after the Wall Street Crash through speakeasies and prohibition to the racism and sexism of the time.
My favourite line in the book was "Sacred Heart [the orphanage] was gossipy enough without him adding more cabbage to the stew."
The book took a while to get going but once it was there the stories were absorbing. I loved William and blind Charlotte trying to survive in depression era Seattle; the simplicity of their reactions was wonderful. I loved the sense of menace when there was no safety net and you couldn't run away because you didn't have enough moneyt even to get on the train. And I was horrified by the details of William's mother's life.
One of the plot twists was so unexpected (and yet so necessary) that I didn't see it coming until the page before it happened. I think I would have ended the story with the penultimate chapter. But each of the last four chapters has its own powerful emotional punch.
The author has also written Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, also about Seattle, which I will try to read.
October 2015; 406 pages