‘Echo’ by Pam Muñoz Ryan: Fabulous middle grade historical fiction/fantasy


Rating: 5 stars

In “Echo,” Pam Muñoz Ryan manages to combine historical fiction with a touch of magic, and the result, somehow, is one hundred per cent magical. To make a wonderful book even better, the audio version of “Echo” has skilled narrators and lovely music played (mostly) by the very talented Corky Siegel.

“Echo” begins in a time “before enchantment was eclipsed by doubt…” There the story begins with a tale of a king who desperately needs a son and his queen, who bears him three daughters. There are other important elements, too: a witch, a loyal midwife, and a curse. The tale then jumps to Otto’s story. He finds the three cursed sisters in the middle of a forest. Their curse is that they can only leave the circle of trees which surrounds them via a woodwind instrument, and Otto has a mouth harp (harmonica) which suffices as a woodwind.

When Otto says “But it’s only a harmonica,” one of the sisters replies that it is much more. She says, “When you play it, you breathe in and out, just as you would to keep your body alive.” The sisters go on to say that “…you will be forever joined to us, to all who have played the harp, and to all who will play it, by the silken thread of destiny.”

And then the body of the book begins. The title page actually appears after the fairy tale and the story of Otto. The year is 1933 and the story is set in Trossingen, Baden-Wurttemberg, Germany. This story is of a young boy named Friedrich Schmidt who was born with a disfiguring birthmark that covers half his face. Tormented by other children, he becomes shy and withdrawn. His only consolations are his family — his loyal sister and his loving father — and his music. Friedrich’s father has just retired from working at the harmonica factory, and when Friedrich cannot attend the local school because of being bullied, he begins to work there as well. The workers there help him with his schooling. The reader quickly learns about Hitler’s youth and that those who oppose the “New Germany” and its politics are sent to “work and reeducation camps.”

Friedrich finds a mysterious harmonica in an abandoned room from which music emanates. The harmonica appears old, and there is a tiny red M painted near the blowholes. The room is empty, and Friedrich rushes out with the harmonica. When he plays the harmonica, the instrument turns out to be very special. Ryan writes, “He felt protected by the cloak of the music, as if nothing could stand in his way.”

All Friedrich wants is to be a conductor, but when his father’s anti-Hitler views get him sent to a work camp, it looks like his life is over. In this first part of the book, discrimination looms large over the Germans. In disparaging the harmonica, Friedrich’s sister, who has joined the League of German Girls (a Hitler organization) tells him that the harmonica is considered unacceptable because of the type of music people play on it — degenerate negro music. And when her father argues, “Music does not have a race or a disposition,” she goes on to say that they should not listen to or play music by Jewish composers.

There is much more provocative material. In the second and third parts of the book the story moves to America, first to Philadelphia, Pennsylvania in 1935, and then to California in 1942. In each story, in each time, the main characters are treated poorly because of who they are. In Pennsylvania, two brothers become orphans and are left at an orphanage where they are treated cruelly. By a twist of luck, someone comes to the orphanage looking for a child to adopt who loves music. The boys had been taught to play the piano by their grandmother before she died, so they are taken to be adopted. But things do not look promising when the woman who was planning on adopting them seems to reject them.

In California, Ivy and her family are leaving their home in Fresno, where Ivy has just learned to play the harmonica. They are going to manage a farm whose owners, Japanese immigrants, have been sent to an internment camp. For the first time in her life, Ivy encounters discrimination when she is not allowed to attend the “white” school but must attend the “Americanization” school in spite of her perfect grades and English.

Ryan shares a little known fact about California history. For many years, children of Hispanic descent were not allowed to attend school with white children. Not until several families joined together and sued the school district were Hispanic children allowed to attend the “regular” school. The case was Mendez, et al v. Westminister [sic] School District of Orange County, et al, 64 F.Supp. 544 (S.D. Cal. 1946), aff’d, 161 F.2d 774 (9th Cir. 1947) (en banc). A picture book for older readers, “Separate is Never Equal,” is a great resource for elementary students about that case.

The story of the three main characters ends in 1951 in New York, New York. But the book is not over — there are still two stories left to complete: the story of Otto, the boy lost in the forest, and the fairy tale of the three sisters. The three endings — for there are three of them — are all beautifully written and emotional, and the author weaves them together beautifully, just as the musicians in an orchestra must weave their instruments together for the full beauty of the music to be heard.

This is one of the few books where listening to the audio version was a more magical experience than just reading the book. While this reviewer usually prefers to read, for the sake of expediency, the audio version was requested. What a wonderful happenstance. The audio version of “Echo” includes music throughout the story, music which makes listening to the audiobook a magical experience. A beautiful experience. And who better to play the magical music with a harmonica than the supremely talented Corky Siegel.

Here is what Corky shared with the author:

“These deep characters and their stories came to life in my little studio. This, and their passion for music, played the harmonica for me. I just closed my eyes and it carried me away. The more I tried to serve this story, the more the story served me. If you are going to read this book, find something to hold on to.”

He shared that this story had special meaning for him. He told this reviewer that “… The story also came to life for me because of some synchronicities in my own life that pulled me in deeper. My friend Hans Wurman, who composed the music for a children’s poem I had written, had been rescued from the gas chamber as a child when a teacher pulled him aside because of his special talent in music. Friedrich reminded me very much of Hans, who also played the cello.”

“Echo” is a book that will be appreciated by mature readers. The book is almost 600 pages — intimidating for those who are not polished readers. And its length makes it a difficult choice to use in the classroom because of the length of time it would take during the school year to read it. But the book is very powerful and would lead to some intense discussion about history and what we can learn from it. Perhaps this would be a great book to suggest as a summer read for students. It would certainly lead to some lively discussions during the beginning of school.

Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book and Audiobook provided by Scholastic Press for review purposes.