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The speaker calls out to an unidentified entity to come to them during the night when the world quiet and dreamlike. To this request is added more: arrive with bright eyes, soft cheeks and tears. The object of the request remains enigmatic as the speaker refers to it as a memory, hope and love gone by. The first three lines all begin with the same word creating the effect of lines 2 and 3 echoing the first with the repetition of the admonition to “come.”
The second stanza also opens with an echo device in which the speaker calls out to a dream that is first just sweet, then too sweet and finally too bittersweet. For the dream to be reality would require that the speaker awakens to Paradise in the sense of the afterlife where souls watch with the longing eyes the slowly opening door in which there are always new arrivals, but through which nobody ever exits.
The echo of the opening stanza is heard again as the speaker makes clear that even if it is only a dream, they want the object of their desire to come. Only by the coming of the mysterious person being directed can the speaker feel alive. When that person arrives, the rhythms of their heart and lungs in perfect matching harmony. The speaker makes one last request: that the dream lean down low and speak low as they did when expressing their love long ago.
So, the harmonica. We can probably all picture one in the hands of some 4-year-old, pressed to the child’s lips as she makes a wheezy, buzzy racket. Or being played by a convict in an old jailhouse movie as he lies on his bunk. But it’s not a serious instrument, not something you’d associate with real music. Or with words like magic, power or beauty.
After reading Pam Muñoz Ryan’s enchanting new novel, you’ll never think of a harmonica the same way again. In “Echo,” a harmonica travels across years and over continents and seas to touch the lives of three embattled, music-obsessed children — and, quite possibly, save a life.
Twelve-year-old Friedrich, growing up in Germany during the years of Hitler’s rise to power, dreams of being a conductor. While in the street or in the schoolyard, he cannot stop his hands from flying upward to guide a music only he can hear. By itself, such behavior singles him out. But Friedrich would never pass unnoticed, because of the birthmark that covers half his face, branding him as an undesirable and earning him the nickname Monster Boy. While preparing for his audition at the conservatory, Friedrich happens upon a mysterious harmonica. Playing it, he gains strength and courage. But as each day brings some new threat, the chances of Friedrich achieving his dream, or even keeping his family together, grow more and more faint.
Two years later, the harmonica has passed to Mike Flannery in Pennsylvania. It’s the depths of the Great Depression, and Mike, 11 years old and almost six feet tall, lives in the Bishop’s Home for Friendless and Destitute Children with his younger brother, Frankie. When Mike and Frankie are adopted by the wealthy Mrs. Sturbridge, they leap from squalor to luxury. But it soon becomes clear that she doesn’t want them, and the brothers are to be split up and sent away. Mike strikes a deal with Mrs. Sturbridge. If he wins a spot in a famous harmonica orchestra (yes, there was such a thing, I checked), he will leave, and Mrs. Sturbridge will keep Frankie with her rather than sending him to a state home.
The final story focuses on Ivy Lopez, whose family has been working as migrant farm laborers in California. It’s a year after Pearl Harbor, and Ivy and her family arrive to manage a farm in Orange County whose Japanese-American owners, the Yamamotos, have been sent to an internment camp. In her new home, Ivy encounters institutional racism as she and the other Latino children are forced to attend a separate school with an “Americanization” program. As the newest owner of the harmonica, Ivy, too, finds refuge and strength in its music. But soon enough, her family’s ties to the Yamamotos put them in crisis, and Ivy finds herself keeping what she fears is a terrible secret.
Long before the three stories came together in the book’s last, triumphant section, I’d been won over by the complex, largehearted characters Muñoz Ryan has created and the virtues — bravery, tolerance, kindness — that the novel espouses. But Muñoz Ryan — the author of the much-loved “Esperanza Rising” and “The Dreamer” — is also a writer who cares about sentences. When Friedrich, preparing to leave his childhood home, plays his town a lullaby on the harmonica, “he swayed, as if cradling Trossingen and its half-timbered houses.” 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.” Start to finish, the book is a joy to read.
It’s not without flaws, though. There is a confusing frame story of three fairy-tale sisters and a lost boy; and while I’m all for the fusion of the magical world and the real one, that fusion is never fully realized in “Echo.” The fairy-tale element feels like an appendage, detracting from the reality and emotional heft of the children’s stories. And while Muñoz Ryan builds the stories with great skill, climaxes don’t seem to interest her. What should be the critical moment of Friedrich’s story happens essentially off-screen. And both Mike’s and Ivy’s stories hinge on O. Henry-esque twists, which retroactively cancel out any peril we might have felt.Continue reading the main story