Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan. | My copy: ARC, 585 pages, Scholastic Press, released February 24th, 2015. | Source: The publisher via Shelf Awareness. | View on Goodreads here.
Music, magic, and a real-life miracle meld in this genre-defying masterpiece from storytelling maestro Pam Muñoz Ryan.
Lost and alone in a forbidden forest, Otto meets three mysterious sisters and suddenly finds himself entwined in a puzzling quest involving a prophecy, a promise, and a harmonica.
Decades later, Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California each, in turn, become interwoven when the very same harmonica lands in their lives. All the children face daunting challenges: rescuing a father, protecting a brother, holding a family together. And ultimately, pulled by the invisible thread of destiny, their suspenseful solo stories converge in an orchestral crescendo.
Richly imagined and masterfully crafted, ECHO pushes the boundaries of genre and form, and shows us what is possible in how we tell stories. The result is an impassioned, uplifting, and virtuosic tour de force that will resound in your heart long after the last note has been struck.
I read and loved Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising and Becoming Naomi Leon. Her middle grade books are wonderful coming of age stories that feature young heroines who have supportive families. Echo is much different from Pam’s other books. For one, it’s a doorstop, clocking in at almost 600 pages (but it reads quickly, don’t worry; there’s also a lot of white space, so it doesn’t seem as daunting as you’d think). Second, it’s a historical novel that weaves three different narratives together. Each child comes to possess a very special harmonica, each child his musically gifted, and each faces the threat of their family being torn apart.
Friedrich is growing up in Germany during Hitler’s rise to power. It was really unsettling to read as things got progressively worse and worse for him, his father, and his uncle. It also was very interesting reading about Friedrich’s older sister, Elisabeth, who becomes a Hitlerite, joining the League, the girls equivalent to Hitler Youth. Interesting, but also painful for me and for Friedrich and his father. They don’t share the beliefs of the Nazi party, and when their very lives are threatened, I was on the edge of my seat, cringing and praying they’d make it out okay.
Mike and his little brother Frankie are in an orphanage in Pennsylvania. The orphanage is losing money and therefore Mike and Frankie will very likely be transferred to separate institutes. However, they’re adopted together and given a new life of luxury… But Mike soon learns the darker reasons behind their adoption, and he makes a deal that will keep Frankie safe, only to find out he was betrayed… Of the three stories, this one seemed a little less believable, and had the least amount of tension, but I still really liked it, and just wanted the two brothers to be happy and find a loving family.
And then there’s Ivy, a Mexican-American girl whose older brother is fighting in the war. Ivy moves with her parents to a new California town, where she experiences segregation at her new school. The farm her father is now working also belongs to a Japanese family that was removed to a camp right after the attack on Pearl Harbor. There is a lot of racial tension and prejudice in this final vignette, and Ivy’s naivety really made me squirm. I had to remember that she was just a child who didn’t understand the true weight of everything going on.
Each vignette ends abruptly on a bad note (for the characters), with the story far from over. Ivy’s is the saddest ending, with the verses of “The Battle Hymn of the Republic” breaking up the paragraphs… *Sniffle.* I wondered if the book would actually break boundaries and go for tragic endings. Is the harmonica that gets passed among these children cursed? Sadly (or happily?), not quite… This is a children’s book, and the “epilogue” that takes place many years later finally weaves the narratives together very closely. I liked the final outcome, but it seemed too neat and pretty, like a present wrapped up with a bow on top. That doesn’t mean the book’s ending isn’t good, it is, but I just half wanted it to go in the opposite direction, just to be absolutely different and, for lack of a better word, ballsy.
I really enjoyed Echo. I loved seeing the parallels between stories, and I loved how close-knit each family was. I think my experience of this book is going to be a lot different from someone who is actually the targeted age group. There is a lot of heavy material here that younger readers might not understand the full scope of. I’m so glad I read Echo. I loved how music played such a big part and how it saved each child in some way, shape or form. I recommend it to more mature audiences, too. It’s a whimsical novel that really struck me to the core. ♦