Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan: A Review

22749539

Hardcover, 592 pages
Expected publication: February 24th 2015 by Scholastic Press
Source: Publisher

Echo opens with a fairytale, scribed in a book Otto bought from the gypsies. When he loses his way in a forest while playing hide and seek, he reads the book and to his surprise, the characters from the book come to life around him listening as he reads their story out loud. But their story is incomplete; there is much more to be written yet. So the three maids whose story Otto was reading out loud, sing a bit of themselves into a harmonica and give the musical instrument to Otto, telling him that when the harmonica saved the lives of those it came in contact with, the curse that has been put on them by an evil witch (as witches are wont to be) will be lifted and they will be able to attain the lives and the identities they are meant for.

Otto takes the harmonica home and it remains in his possession for a long while until he has no choice to give it up. Then it begins it’s journey: first to Friedrich who hears music in the winds, in the clangle, in the discordant voices of people who tease him because of the disfiguring birthmark on his face. Then to Mike who lives with his brother in an orphanage under constant threat of separation and finally to Ivy who yearns for music and knowledge, whose brother is away at war in a country that doesn’t let “dirty Mexican children” like her sit in the same classroom as all other so-called Americans.

This novel is a revelation; it’s beauty comes through in the simplicity of the writing that best expresses the rich and complex emotions of the characters holding court in all the sections. Friedrich is a young German boy whose identity has been largely informed by the birthmark on his face. There is a poignant moment when he wonders if the birthmark is all he is.

“Was his face a crime? Wasn’t there more to him than his birthmark and an illness he no longer had?”

He and his father are unable to understand why his sister is a Hitlerite and how she is so blinded by her new faith that she is unable to see the wrongness so deeply embedded in Hitler’s teachings.

I found the second section to be the saddest as Mike and his brother Frankie live in a house for orphans in the poorest conditions with a tyrannical headmistress who exploits the children for profit. Even when they are adopted by a benefactor, there is no security or guarantee that they’ll be kept. I find it the most heartbreaking when children are asked to deal with adult issues and Ryan expresses Mike’s heartbreak with such splendid candour that I dare say not a single eye will be dry when reading this section.

In Ivy’s section, focus swings to racism and discrimination as Ivy and her family move to a new farm, one that belonged to the Yamamotos who have been interred in a camp for Japanese Americans following the Pearl Harbour bombing. Ryan raises the question of national identity and what it means to be American when Ivy is placed in an annex instead of a main school simply because she is of Mexican descent.

All the sections have protagonists who are musical prodigies and whose souls cleave towards the fever music brings. They all play Otto’s harmonica and it serves them in different ways throughout the story. Each section ends on a cliffhanger and the reader has to wait till the end to see how the main characters end up.

The framing device utilized to tell the novel works splendidly and I liked how the framing was done twice: first as a fiction (Otto reads the story of the three maids in a book) and then as a series of episodic sections with the harmonica forming the uniting item. The book also portrays how all people are related to each other often unexpectedly and unknowingly.

The book most succeeded with me in its portrayal of music; I could almost hear the sweet tones of the harmonica, the keys of the piano and the lilt of the flute. The sections are quick paced and though there are introspective moments, they are woven skillfully within the narrative so the story never drags. The drama and emotions are, as I mention, intense but they are never overwhelming. There is a current of sadness but nothing melodramatic. This book is perfect for both children who will speed through it once and then again and for adults who will have a wonderful time exploring the prose and the connections that may not be apparent to child readers.

The novel comes out on February 24th. Preorder your copy or plan a trip to the bookstore as soon as it is out. You won’t regret it.