Echo, a Newbery-winning middle grade novel by Pam Munoz Ryan (2015) tells the stories of three preteens–Friedrich in 1933 Germany; Mike in 1935 Pennsylvania; and Ivy, in 1942 Southern California–who are all connected by music and a harmonica that finds its way to each of them at just the right time. The stories are bracketed by a fairy tale about Otto and three enchanted sisters and how the harmonica came to be.
Munoz Ryan expertly weaved their stories together and illuminated some dark historical times–the rise of Nazi Germany and the fate of freethinking Germans who may have genetic “abnormalities”; orphan brothers during the U.S. Great Depression; and Mexican-American farm workers and the internment of Japanese-Americans during World War II.
Friedrich dreams of being a conductor of an orchestra. Although his mother died, he grew up with music–has father playing the cello and his sister the piano. But he’s not able to go to school and instead goes with his father to the harmonica factory, because he was born with a large birthmark over half his face and neck. The adults at the factory tutor him, but life outside his home and the factory is difficult, especially after his sister comes home from school, she seems to have incorporated many of the Nazi ideas she has heard, and his father is not known for keeping his opinions to himself.
Mike and his younger brother Frankie were dropped off at a particular boys’ orphanage by their Gram after she got sick, because it was the only one with a piano. It is becoming increasingly difficult for them to stay together, until they are visited by a representative of a Dow heiress who wants to adopt a “musical” child, and the boys overwhelm them with an arrangement of America the Beautiful.
Ivy’s doing well at her school in the Central Valley of California, where she’s been selected to play a harmonica solo. But then her parents decide to take an opportunity to move because her father can be the general manager of a farm while the owner is away. She misses her brother, who is in the military, but makes the best of her new school situation when she finds out there’s a separate school for the Mexican kids, even though she was born in the United States and speaks perfect English! Luckily the kids at the “Mexican” school can join in the other school for orchestra, where the teacher welcomes her with open arms. But she’s curious about the Yamamotos, the Japanese-American family whose farm they are taking care of, and the contents of a mysterious door she finds in a closet–could they be spies? Or do they have more in common with her than she could have imagined?
Munoz Ryan wraps up all of the stories with a bow, with a final story set in 1951 in New York City. While some might say the likelihood of the characters’ connections defies believability, I thought it was absolutely plausible and thoroughly enjoyable.
The only mention of any character’s weight or size was when Friedrich described his beloved Uncle Gunter as a “shorter, rounder” version of his father, which I took as a neutral description. This is a great weight-neutral middle-grade historical/ fantasy novel, and worthy of its Newbery Award.