In a forest in late nineteenth century Germany, a boy, Otto, becomes lost. Three enchanted sisters find him. They present Otto with a harmonica for strength then show him the way back home. This is a setting suited for a Brothers Grimm or A.E. Houseman fairytale. So begins Pam Muñoz Ryan’s enchanting novel Echo.
Echo is a rich layering of story work. There are fable and coming of age with social and historical elements interwoven throughout this novel. In showing Otto the way home, he must make a promise. Almost fifty years later, with the rise of Nazism in Germany, Friedrich finds an old harmonica that is seemingly magical. Muñoz Ryan depicts the ‘average’ German family of the early- to mid-nineteen-thirties at the rise of Hitler. Friedrich’s family is hard working. Their lives revolve around music until rising fascism displaces their grounding. Muñoz Ryan’s choice is bold, showing a family split in ideology and political belief.
Bold, poignant choices flow throughout Echo. The story slips in time through the somewhat darkest years of the twentieth century, Nazism, depression, WWII, Japanese-American internment, and racism all play out as Echo moves from Germany to Pennsylvania, and then California. The harmonica connects each succeeding character’s story to the fabled beginning as it passes to a new owner in their time of need.
During the oppressive depths of the Great Depression, the harmonica passes to a young boy, Mike, in Pennsylvania. Mike and his younger brother Frankie live in a home for destitute children until fortune seems to smile on them and a wealthy woman adopts them. Things do not always turn out as fate might imply. Mike turns to music using the harmonica in the hopes of keeping his younger brother safe. Later, the harmonica passes to Ivy Lopez in California. World War II has begun and Japanese-Americans are forced into internment camps. The Lopez family, migrant farm laborers, are left to manage the Yamamotos’ farm. Ivy suffers through educational segregation as her family is subject to community distrust due to their ties to the Yamamotos. Through each story, the fable of a lost boy and three enchanted sisters surfaces in subtle ways linking the narration into one.
Muñoz Ryan has created a well-written mixture of historical fiction, coming of age, music, and fairy tale. Echo is written for the pre-teen/early-teen market, but its narration and presentation traverse such categorization. I found Echo an enchanting and engaging read. I enjoyed Muñoz Ryan’s use of language and her ability to flow music throughout the prose as if the book was singing. Echo is a novel for anyone interested in a well-told story or group of stories.
Nina Longfield is a writer living in Oregon’s fertile wine country. When she is not reading or writing in her spare time, Nina enjoys hiking in the hills surrounding her cabin.
Review copy was provided free of any obligation by Scholastic Press. No monetary or any other form of compensation was received.