May 23

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Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan – Review by Shilpa Mehta

Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan is a compilation of stories tied together in a timeless thread by the power of music. The harmonica, featured prominently on the cover and the book’s spine, travels through time and across continents and oceans through the hands of three magnanimous children, and brings to each comfort and the confidence to brave the difficulties forced upon them by circumstances beyond their control. Pam Ryan weaves their stories in ways that are just as magical as the harmonica itself and the unusually beautiful music it makes. I was drawn into the lives of the characters and, through her words, I experienced their pains and struggles, their despair and anguish, and their hopes and dreams.

 

Friedrich is a musically gifted child growing up in Germany in a tumultuous political environment. The birthmark that covers one side of his face is seen as a deformity that eclipses his musical talent. The harmonica that he accidentally discovers gives him the strength to face new threats that can destroy his world. The harmonica then lands in the hands of musically-gifted, orphaned brothers, Frank and Mike growing up in Pennsylvania during the Great Depression. The final story is about Ivy, a child of migrant farm laborers and takes place in California. Being of Mexican ancestry, Ivy must attend a separate school with an ‘Americanization’ program despite being an American. She seeks refuge and comfort in music with the harmonica giving her the strength to steer through the crises in her life and those of Yamamotos whom she has never met.

 

The integrity and kindness of these characters are up against the world bent on defeating them at every corner yet these young, mature and strong protagonists never seem inauthentic or unreal. My own faith in what human disposition can be at its best carried me through the lives of these characters who must face seemingly insurmountable challenges while holding on to the most idealistic values. Each protagonist values the bond that ties people into family and friendship. This bond plays a pivotal role in their lives holding them together even in the darkest moments of their life. It forces us to think of what we value, and what we give and receive unconditionally. It compels us to reflect at prejudices that still have not been shed but merely cloaked. Can human nature ever completely transcend these?

 

For young readers, this book presents invaluable life lessons – courage, inner strength, conviction, tolerance, kindness, empathy and above all the message of hope. Pam Ryan’s triumph in writing this book for young readers lies in presenting powerful content in an accessible way. By portraying social injustice in the lives of these children, Ryan creates a lens to understand history while entrusting the reader with so much to think about. Her writing itself has musical tones to it very much like the scintillating music that binds the characters in a timeless thread of destiny, consequences and hope. When Ryan expresses Friedrich’s sentiments on leaving his hometown by saying, “He swayed, as if cradling Trossingen and its half-timbered houses”, or Mike Flannery’s responsibility for his younger brother “had become another layer of skin. Just when he thought he might shed a little, or breathe easy, or even laugh out loud, it tightened over him”, the sentiments echoed through to me in a way that I found it impossible not to re-read the words.

 

Each of these stories seems like a novella and the author leaves each story on a cliffhanger. In the final part, it was no doubt a great relief to find that the protagonists had braved the storms and were brought together in a seemingly fairy tale manner. Each of these skillfully written stories has a somewhat truncated ending and a hurried up wrap up sounds almost like an epilogue.

 

For a young reader, the fantasy elements lend a certain appeal, almost like an invitation to embark on a special journey through time. When the princesses help Otto find his way through the forest, a premise is set that even though we must wade through darkness and despair that seem to engulf us, our inner strength and hope will see us through. The cover of the book, beautifully done, resonates the message of hope, binding all those whose lives are touched by the harmonica.

 

In conclusion, the story lines are heartfelt and the wealth of historical information and the life lessons that young readers will draw are simply precious. Highly recommended!

 

Shilpa Mehta is a scientist by training, and currently an educator who aims to help children find wings to their imagination, fuel their desire to explore, and encourage their sense of wonder.