Echo – 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.
Review: When I heard that this middlegrade book pushes the boundaries of the genre, I knew I had to get my hands on it. I’ve liked Pam Muñoz Ryan’s other middlegrade novels and had high hopes for this one, so I ordered it without doing much research. I did not expect a 600-page cinderblock to show up at my door. Reading this book gave me an arm workout. Seriously, the hardcover version of this beast is heavy. Beautiful and very, very heavy.
This is a hard book to review because there is a lot going on in here. Echo tells four linked stories. The first is a fairytale: A boy called Otto meets three magical orphaned sisters in the forest. The sisters’ fate and magic becomes wrapped up with Otto and his harmonica.
In the second novella, Otto’s magic (or is it cursed?) harmonica becomes the property of Friedrich, a boy growing up in a small German town during the start of Hitler’s reign. This is my favorite of the novellas because Friedrich has a wonderful, supportive family. Even though the family members have different political beliefs, they still put family before everything else. When politics tear them apart, music and love bring them back together. The characters in this story are more complex than the characters in the other stories. I like that the author doesn’t give in to oversimplified evil-Nazi stereotypes. Friedrich’s sister is never vilified for her choices. This story shows that it is possible to love someone who is very different from you.
“Music does not have a race or a disposition! Every instrument has a voice that contributes. Music is a universal language. A universal religion of sorts. Certainly it’s my religion. Music surpasses all distinctions between people.” – Echo
In the next novella, the harmonica finds Mike, an orphan and music prodigy living in Pennsylvania. Mike and his little brother are adopted by an odd woman. At first, the boys are thrilled, but then they start wondering if the woman really wants them. This was the hardest novella for me to get into. I hated most of the adults in this story, which isn’t a criticism of the book because they were supposed to be unlikable (I think?), but they irked me. The adults in this one can’t seem to behave like adults. There is a huge miscommunication plot. The orphaned brothers have been through so much, and the adults cause them more stress by not telling them what’s going on. Also, the kids’ adoptive grandfather tries to use orphans to cure his adult daughter’s depression. I know this is a historical story, and child psychology wasn’t understood very well in 1935, but I was still cringing for the poor kids.
“Everybody has a heart. Sometimes you gotta work hard to find it.” - Echo
The final novella is about a Mexican-American girl, Ivy, who moves to a farm with her parents. The farm’s Japanese owners were taken to a camp after the attack on Pearl Harbor, and Ivy’s father is caring for the farm until they come home. Ivy is excited about attending a new school, but disappointment sets in when she realizes she will be going to a segregated school for Mexicans instead. The only thing that keeps her going is her love of orchestra and her harmonica. This novella does a fabulous job of showing the role racism played in US history. The themes of this story can still be applied to modern times. Unfortunately, racism and questioning how “American” certain racial groups are hasn’t gone away. If you’re a fan of Pam Muñoz Ryan’s Esperanza Rising, you’ll like Ivy’s story. It shines light on the less-awesome parts of American history that are often overlooked.
Echo pushes the boundaries of middlegrade because each novella ends on a depressing cliffhanger. Right when things look really bad for the characters, the story ends. As an adult reader, I could pick out enough foreshadowing to know where the book was headed. I was pretty confident that everything would work out for the characters, and most of the problems would be neatly solved. But, I wonder how much patience younger readers would have for this book. I read Echo in a few hours, but I think some kids might struggle to get through a 600-page cliffhanger-filled monster. This might be a perfect novel for kids who love to read and need something more structurally intricate than the usual middlegrade book.
The themes of Echo are the best part. In each story, the young characters lose their homes and find new homes. The novel shows that even if your life falls apart, you’ll still be okay. Just because things are bad now doesn’t mean they will always be bad. Considering that the average American family moves every 5 years, the message of this book could be comforting.
I can totally see why Echo has been winning pretty much every award ever this year. It definitely stands out from other books in the genre.