In her 2016 Newberry Honor Award-winning book, Echo, Pam Munoz Ryan weaves together four different story threads, and sprinkles them with a bit of magic. In the book’s unnamed preface, the reader is introduced to young Otto Messenger (a German boy who’s tale takes place 50 years before World War II) who, after the purchase of a mysterious fairytale book about three cursed prinesses, loses his way in the woods. His way home is found, and his life saved by the magic of three young women, identical in name and circumstance to those in the fairytale book he purchased from a gypsy (who also pressed upon him a harmonica). The girls themselves have become trapped in the forest, and estranged from their family, by a vengeful witch. They tell Otto that they will lead him from the dark forest, if he will take with him the magical harmonica which they each take a turn at playing, and promise that one day, he will pass it along to one who’s life is in peril. He stumbles through the forest, almost losing heart until he plays the harmonica and feels the courage and solace of the three sisters run through him with each note until he is found by near the end of the path by his frantic family.
The novel next picks up its next thread with young Friedrich Schmidt, in a small town just outside the Black Forest. Friedrich is a talented musician, who fantasizes about conducting his own orchestra and often pretends to do so with hand-waving and great gusto, much to the chagrin of his older sister Elizabeth. Friedrich, bullied for such eccentricity, is pulled from school and taught by his father and co-workers at the local harmonica factory where he goes to work. One day, on his lunchbreak, he discovers a very special harmonica in an area believed by the other workers to be haunted. Despite his talent and obvious intelligence, the large port wine stain covering half of his face marks him as “undesirable” in what is becoming an increasingly hitler-ized community, where differences are not only frowned upon, but also dangerous. Friedrich’s eccentricities and birthmark, which is viewed as a deformity, in addition to his father’s status as a “jew lover” place them all in jeopardy, and he is forced make some brave decisions.
The novel’s next section, set in Pennsylvania in the summer of 1935, focuses on eleven year-old Mike and his younger brother Frankie. Both were orphaned by a series of unfortunate events that took first their father, then their mother, and finally their aging grandmother. Their grandmother was a devoted music lover and piano teacher, and insisted, on her death bed, that Mike and Frankie be placed in a boys’ home that had a piano, and that they never be separated. The director of the home, Ms. Pennyweather, takes a dislike for the boys and this is exacerbated by their antics (brought on when potential families seem inclined to split up the pair), and plans to ship young Frankie off to the state home and put Mike out to hire at local farms. A rescue materializes in the form of two attorneys sent on behalf of a mysterious benefactor to test various orphans for musical ability. Attorney Howard agrees to take both of the boys when Frankie seems on the verge of melt-down after their successful audition at the orphanage’s rickety upright. Mike soon discovers that their benefactor, a former concert pianist herself, is not at all pleased to learn that, instead of a talented young girl, she is now the mother of two young boys. His suspicion that all is not as it seems is further roused when he learns that the adoption didn’t stem from the most altruistic of motives in the first place. The more he learns, the more desperate he becomes to make sure Frankie is alright, even if it means taking himself out of the picture. Practicing with the almost magical-sounding harmonica purchased for him by Mr. Howard, Mike is determined to find placement for himself with Hoxie’s Harmonica Wizards, but even that may just not be enough to save them both.
The novel’s fourth section, taking place just after Pearl Harbor, with Ivy Lopez, the young the daughter of two migrant parents in California’s Fresno County. Thanks to a northeastern charity drive, Ivy receives a harmonica, and soon displays an uncanny talent. She is so advanced that she, along with her class, is set to perform live on the radio. Unfortunately, before she is able to make her broadcast debut, her father receives a job offer, an opportunity he can’t refuse. The family quickly packs up and heads for the Yamamoto farm, a place where, if things work out, her father has been promised a supervisory position on the farm with a home and land of his own. All of this hinges on the Lopez family’s ability to manage the farm successfully. The Yamamotos’, Japanese-Americans, have been interned, and their property and home lies empty. Kenny, their son, a marine interpreter, is set to arrive and evaluate their success in caring for the property in his family’s absence. Standing between the Lopez family and their dream, is a vandal who seems bent on undoing all of their improvements, and an angry neighbor who remains convinced that the Yamamotos are Japanese spies and saboteurs. Ivy, possessing a secret that could make all the difference
With such a wide and reaching narrative arc, the author deftly negotiates the different voices in her story to impart a theme of hope and redemption during a time of great upheaval. While the war is, to some extent, a presence in each tale, as is the harmonica, the true meat of the story is the hopefulness, bravery, and idealism of each of the characters. This is a heart-warming piece of historical fiction sure to please both parents and children alike.