The art of storytelling can be magical, if done correctly. It can enchant the reader (or listener) and transport them to a different place, or time. Some stories throw you right into the fray and some take time to build up momentum. It is unusual to find a book that can do both. Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan does just that. And boy, can she weave a story tale web!
Echo is about many different things but it is centralized by a harmonica and World War II. You’ll be missing out if you don’t read the very first pages- the pages that come before the title page. The beginning of the book starts off with a fairytale about a kingdom whose king is about to have his first child. If a daughter is born then the kingdom according to the succession will go to the king’s brother. If he has a son then the son will become king. However, the king has a daughter. He has the midwife take the daughter away and tells everyone that the child died. The midwife takes the baby to her sister, a witch, who lives deep in the forest. The king has three daughters and eventually the king’s brother dies and the king tells the midwife to bring his daughters back home to him. However, the witch has grown accustomed to the three girls living with her because they would do all the chores. The witch casts a spell on them that they cannot leave her until they save a life.
The rest of the book is told in four parts. Part One takes place in Trossingen, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany during 1933. Frederich is an aspiring musician and his lifelong dream is to be a conductor. He works in a harmonica factory with his father. One day he finds a harmonica in an abandoned part of the factory. This harmonica is like no other that he’s ever played. This story is also about his family and their dilemma about what is right or wrong during the beginning of the rise of Hitler. Eventually, Frederich’s father gets himself into trouble after inviting a few musicians to his home to help Frederich prepare for an audition at a prestigious conservatory.
Part Two is about two orphan brothers in Philadelphia, PA during 1935. The two brothers, Mike and Frankie are trying to stick together. They know that they need to leave the orphanage soon otherwise Frankie will be sent to a state home. Mike is an accomplished musician and his dream is to play the piano at Carnegie Hall. The two plan to try out for the Philadelphia Harmonica Band as a way to stick together. However, what seems like a turn of luck, the two are adopted after a mysterious concert in which they play the piano for a man named Mr. Howard. Mr. Howard is the lawyer of Mrs. Sturbridge, their newly adopted mother. When the boys arrive to the Sturbridge mansion they feel as though they’ve hit the jackpot, but Mrs. Sturbridge’s behavior leads them to think otherwise. Mike resumes his plan to join the Philadelphia Harmonica Band once he finds out that Mrs. Sturbridge is trying to repeal the adoption.
The third part of the book takes place in 1942 and stars a young lady and her family. The one thing that Ivy Lopez is looking forward to is playing the harmonica on the radio with her classmates. However, Ivy’s dreams are dashed when her father tells her that the family is moving. They will have better opportunities in Orange County, near Los Angeles. Her father will be a caretaker of an orchard and they will finally be able to have a house. Ivy is nervous and sad, but she remembers the promise she made to her brother, Nando, before he left for boot camp, and that was to be a good solider and to help her mother and father as much as possible. Once she moves, it seems all downhill from there because the Yamamoto’s, owners of the farm in which her father will be working for, are not even living at the farm because they are Japanese and in are living in an internment camp. Her family’s fate is tied to that of the Yamamoto’s. Also, she is sent to a separate school just because of her Hispanic heritage even though she was born in the United States. Her only saving grace is that she is allowed to join the orchestra.
In the end, Ryan ties all three of these lives together in such a masterful way that it gave me goosebumps and such pleasure to see how each one of these lives have been touched by the same harmonica. Echo is like reading a short story and a novel rolled into one. Even though this book can be found in our Youth section, adults and children alike would find this such an enjoyable and inspiring read.
Recommended by Tracy Alexander