Otto is playing a game with his friends when he wanders too far into the forest. He meets three sisters who were imprisoned by an enchantment that could only be broken by a woodwind instrument. Otto had a harmonica, but the sisters said that for him to help them, he had to promise to pass the instrument on to another.
In 1933, Friedrich lived happily with his musician father despite the disfiguring birthmark on his face. His sister and uncle loved him, too, and made Friedrich feel that his compulsion to conduct imaginary orchestras was a mark of genius, not mental illness, as the boys at school called out to him. Friedrich left school early to work in the harmonica factory, and one day during lunch break, he felt himself drawn into the abandoned mansion that many feared was haunted. Ethereal music led him up the stairs where he found an old desk with a special harmonica in the top drawer. This harmonica made music like no other.
Events in Friedrich’s Germany were rapidly changing, and many citizens felt that Friedrich’s birthmark was a reason to send him for sterilization surgery so that he would not sully the Aryan race with children. His father fought for him, but that brought him under scrutiny for being friendly to Jews. Before anything could happen to him, Friedrich packed his special harmonica in one of the boxes from his factory, where it was then randomly packed into a box full of ordinary instruments.
In 1935, Mike and Frankie’s grandmother has just died, which lands them in a cruel orphanage under the care of Miss Pennyweather. Granny had chosen this orphanage because it had a piano, and Mike was a musical prodigy. However, after her death, Mike found out that Pennyweather wanted to sell the piano, put the little boys, like Frankie, in a state home, and make money by hiring the older boys out for labor.
Mike decided that the most important thing in his life was to protect his little brother. Even after they are adopted in a very complicated arrangement, Mike doesn’t trust anyone. He plans to enter a contest for the Philadelphia Harmonica Band, since he knows that if he plays his special harmonica, he is sure to win a place in the band. Then someone will adopt his cute little brother without him, and they will both be safe. However, right after the band rehearsal, Mike tries a desperate plan to run away, and as he falls from a tree during his escape, the harmonica drops from his pocket and is lost.
In 1942, Ivy Maria Lopez and her family move from Fresno County, California, to Orange County in order become caretakers for the farm of a Japanese family who are in a detention facility during World War II. Ivy worries that her beloved brother, Fernando, will not find them when he returns from serving in the military. She also mourns for the school concert that she will miss. She had planned to play the harmonica that she received from her teacher, Miss Delgado, who said that Ivy had real talent. Ivy’s parents thought that her music was worthless play.
Ivy’s mother does laundry for a wealthy family nearby, and Ivy and their daughter, Susan, soon become friends. How surprised she is, on the first day of school, to find out that Latino children have a separate school! Although Ivy’s first language is English, she has to take English language classes each day. Furthermore, Susan’s father is convinced that the Lopezes’ employers are actually Japanese spies. Ivy becomes confused, but she hopes that she will at least be able to play her harmonica in the orchestra in Susan’s school.
Pam Muñoz Ryan ends each of these children’s stories on a cliffhanger, and then draws the connecting thread in a few chapters at the end. All of the stories are absorbing and spotlight the suffering of children, which often goes unnoticed in hard times. Books are written about political or military leaders and the adult heroes of the resistance, but the children who are living through these same experiences rarely get to tell their tales. The device of the enchanted harmonica weaves them all together with the international language of music.
Ryan is a celebrated writer of children’s literature, and this almost 600-page volume is a real contender for the 2016 Newbery Medal. When I visited the Mock Newbery Club in our county last week, most of the students had this title near the top of their lists, but one young man, like me, was not comfortable with the chopped-off endings for each story, and wanted a smoother novel. I think it comes down to whether or not one is a short story reader, and I am not. I like to follow one beloved character all the way to the end, and although I recognize the brilliance of the writing and the interconnected plots, this would not be my choice.
However, if you have room for one more World War II story in a year filled with very good ones, Echo will keep your avid readers (10 and up) enthralled for quite a while. Be forewarned: You may have to buy a harmonica.
Disclaimer: I read a library copy of this book. Opinions expressed are solely my own and do not reflect those of my employer or anyone else.