Wednesday, January 06, 2016

Middle-Grade Review: Echo

Echo, a middle-grade novel by Pam Muñoz Ryan, languished in my virtual “pile” of to-listen-to audiobook downloads for almost a year. I finally listened to it in December and was entranced by this magical, musical story that is even more enchanting on audio.

This unusual novel opens with the story of Otto, a young boy playing hide and seek with his friends who gets lost in the Black Forest and reads a book he brought along. He chose the book because his name, Otto, is on the cover, and it tells a fable-like story of three sisters, princesses who have been banished to the woods with a spell because their father wants a male heir. The bookseller insisted that Otto also take a harmonica when he gave him the book. Otto looks up from his fable to find the three sisters, in real life, in front of him. He reads them their story, and they are amazed by it. They tell him that he must take the harmonica and pass it along to someone else “when the time is right,” and in that way, he will help to eventually break the spell that holds them captive.

Next, the book jumps to the story of Friedrich, a young boy in Germany at the brink of World War II. Friedrich dreams of becoming a conductor when he grows up, but he is teased ruthlessly in school for conducting his imaginary orchestras. His loving father brings him to the harmonica factory where he and Friedrich’s uncle work, and Friedrich helps out there in return for private tutoring. However, when Friedrich’s and his father’s lives are in danger due to Hitler’s rise (Friedrich has a disfiguring birthmark and his father has Jewish friends), they must flee their beloved home and town.

The next portion of the novel focuses on Mike, an orphan in Pennsylvania, whose greatest goal is to protect his younger brother, Frankie. The boys hope to get adopted together, but both of them are in danger when the greedy orphanage director looks to sell Mike out as hired help and ship Frankie off to an orphanage with a terrible reputation. The brothers come up with a plan to try out for the Philadelphia Harmonica Band, to save them from these dire fates.

Out in California, young Ivy is a Mexican-American whose family has worked and lived as migrant workers. Her father gets a better job, watching over the farm of a Japanese-American family who have been taken to an internment camp, but it means Ivy has to leave her best friend and give up her upcoming harmonica solo that was going to be broadcast on the radio. In her new town, she faces prejudice but has a new friend and her music. Ivy’s beloved older brother has gone off to fight in the war, causing the rest of the family to worry for his safety.

Each of these individual stories is interesting and compelling in its own right, with nothing but a harmonica linking them. They each end with a bit of a cliffhanger, which I found frustrating at first, but the stories – and the beginning fable – all link up beautifully in the end. Each of the main characters is endearing and real-feeling, and I was completely engrossed in each story and couldn’t wait to see how they would come together finally.

Music is the glue that binds these very different stories together, and the audio book is a joy to listen to, with music woven through the narrative. From Friedrich’s traditional classical music on harmonica and cello, played with his father, to Mike and Frankie’s American tunes played on the piano and harmonica to Ivy’s patriotic songs, the music complements the story beautifully throughout the book. In addition, multiple narrators bring the characters to life.

This is a wonderful audio experience for the whole family to enjoy together, with likable characters each facing challenges. The thread of history also winds through the narrative, with multiple perspectives on a war that affected the whole world. And, of course, the music brings it all together, with a very satisfying ending.


You can listen to a free audio sample of this unique novel at the Amazon link below (click on the audio version) or at the author’s website (this sample includes music within the narrative).

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