OTHER CONSOLATION PRIZES
by JAMIE FORD
In 1909, Seattle hosted a world’s fair known as the Alaska Yukon Pacific Exposition, The long forgotten extravaganza was featured in a 2009 DVD celebrating the fair’s 100 year anniversary. The narrator, Tom Skerritt, while discussing human oddities featured at the fair, mentioned that a one-month-old baby boy, named Ernest, was donated by the Washington Children’s Home Society, to be a prize at the world fair’s highly publicized raffle. The ticket was drawn, but no one claimed the baby.
Gobsmacked by a society willing to use an orphan as a contest prize, Jamie Ford draws the winning numbers and does what didn’t happen in reality – he hands over Ernest, as a 12 year-old, to the prize winning ticket holder.
The story unfolds in Seattle in 1962 as Ernest Young’s daughter, Juju, a reporter, discovers a family secret about her father while researching the history of the 1909 world’s fair, a past her father is very reluctant to share. Ernest begins to remember events and people he had submerged years ago. As his past comes flooding back, he realizes that sharing his secret would hurt his wife, Gracie, now sidelined with memory issues. Juju is relentless and the battle with her father to spill the beans is a backdrop to an extraordinary life filled with both pain and happiness in the most unusual of circumstances.
Ernest’s memories take us back and forth from 1962 to 1909; his earlier years described so vividly they feel in technicolor compared to the muted colors of his older years.
Ernest Young, known then as Yung Kun-ai’, was born in China around 1900. Yung Kun-ai’s father, a white missionary, was murdered and his mother, near death from starvation, offered her son a chance to live selling him to smugglers. As a bi-racial child of a white missionary and a Chinese mother, Yung Kun-ai had no future in China; no matter how unpleasant his future would be in America, he would be alive.
His journey to America was fraught with peril dodging death along the way. After a very rough start, a wealth patron, Mrs. Irvine, sponsors Ernest, sending him to an expensive boarding school where he is discriminated against by staff and students. Ernest remains silent about his treatment but tells Mrs. Irvine he is ready for a change. She obliges. She surprises him with tickets to the world’s fair to celebrate his twelfth birthday; traveling to the fair she tells him three things:
. . .that he would finally be given a good home, . . he would see the President of the United States and that his legal name was now Ernest Young.
Mrs. Irvine, ignoring his pleas to stop and look at the exhibits, walks him to the area where highly popular daily raffles are held. She whispers to him, they are all here for you! They’ve all come to see you and find out who has the special ticket. . . As she steps away from him she says gleefully, someone is taking you home with them. Ernest then realizes – he is today’s prize.
Mrs. Irvine nearly dies of apoplexy when she discovers the winning ticket is held by Florence Nettleton, recognized in Seattle’s prosperous brothel trade, as Madame Flora. The winner never in doubt, as Flora rigged the raffle; she wanted a house boy.
As Miss Maisie May, Madame Flora’s little sister, welcomes him to the Tenderloin, Ernest stands in the doorway stunned; all his senses were on high alert. Whatever my life holds for me now, he thinks, it is not going to be like anything I have ever experienced. That felt like hope; an emotion foreign to him in the past. He asks himself, what goes on here?
The building’s entrance was magnificent, with a glittering voltaic chandelier, the foyer accented with finely polished mill work. . . Everywhere he looked there were tapestries, lace-covered walls, plush French furniture in crimson and gold . . . There was a black man in blue tuxedo playing a piano. He smelled perfume, flowers and savory spices roasting in some unseen kitchen.
Fast friends are made, first kisses shared, and a true family develops supporting everyone when the moral crusaders and powerful community leaders reveal their hypocrisies and lust. Tears are shed and tragedy strikes, but Flora’s family of misfits and outcasts endure together.
It would seem odd to describe a novel where teenage girls are auctioned off for their virginity or succumb to dangers of the trade as heart-warming but Jamie Ford pulls it off. Much like his previous novel, Hotel on the Corner of Bitter and Sweet, he scratches the surface and reveals their humanity and emotional needs. His descriptions of Seattle and its culture in the early 20th century- both good and bad – seem real and draw the reader into the novel.
You will not forget Ernest, Fahn, Maisie, and others.