Pam Munoz Ryan, Echo (Scholastic, 2015)
Echo takes an unlikely candidate for bearing mysterious, magical powers of healing and protection — a harmonica — and weaves a surprisingly compelling tale around this humble instrument. This middle-grade novel tells three stories of young people during the years surrounding the Second World War, with music as the thread that inspires, sustains, and ultimately connects them. As the harmonica passes through the lives of Friedrich in Germany, Michael in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California, it changes their lives in unexpected ways, though revelation of the ultimate results for good or ill is left till the very end.
I enjoyed the details of how the harmonica played a role in each story. Who knew there was a golden age of harmonica bands, or that these small pieces of wood and metal really saved lives in the war? Other bits of historical fact, like the fight against the unjust segregation of Mexican-Americans in California schools, are incorporated gracefully as well. Though I found Echo to suffer from a certain amount of oversimplification and stereotyping, featuring as it does an abundance of cartoon Nazis, plucky orphans, and deserving immigrants, there are also vividly drawn and memorable characters to take into one’s heart, as well as a moving plea for the vital importance of music in human life. Certainly, I will never look at a harmonica in the same way again.
I found it sometimes frustrating to be pulled out of one story into another just at a crucial moment, and would peek at the end to make sure everything was going to turn out all right. (Not very surprising spoiler: it does.) The closing pages wrap everything up neatly, and rather too quickly for all that has gone before. It would have felt more balanced if the final section had been given more weight, rather than resolving all the narrative tension in a few hasty flashbacks.
At nearly 600 pages, this looks like a formidable chunk of a book, but appearances are deceiving. I really don’t understand why publishers sometimes choose to set the type of middle-grade books at nearly easy-reader proportions, but I wish this wasteful and misleading practice would stop. In this case, don’t be intimidated by the page count; Echo will quickly pull you in to its tale of music, courage, and hope.