That was one of my better choices. ECHO is my sixth five-star book of 2016 and the best children’s novel I’ve read (or listened to) in years.
The book explores four slightly interrelated storylines, each separated by years and miles. We begin long ago in the Black Forest with Otto, a young boy who meets three women who bear an eerie resemblance to the characters in the book he’s reading. Prompted by his story’s plot, he invites them to each play a tune on his harmonica, setting in motion a spell that could change their fate even as it links several children who're yet to be born.
Germany, 1932. Friedrich desperately wants to become a conductor, but he’s got a facial birthmark, a history of epilepsy, and a father and uncle who vocally disagree with the Nazis. He’s got one shot to prove his worth: ace his Conservatory audition on his extremely non-German harmonica.
Pennsylvania, 1935. Mike promised his grandmother he and his younger brother would always stay together; a prospect that’s all but impossible given the adoption climate at their orphanage. Mike dreams instead of joining a traveling harmonica orchestra so his brother can find a new home without worrying about Mike, but his plans change when a wealthy yet standoffish woman enters their lives.
California, 1942. Ivy’s family relocates in the hopes of finally earning their own home. Ivy makes the best of the sudden move by caring for an abandoned house and teaching her neighbor to play the harmonica, but her new town's racism threatens to derail her optimism.
Ryan introduces us to each of the main characters in fraught circumstances that push them in highly personal ways: a solo walk across a potentially hostile town; a new opportunity for adoption; a dream quashed, yet quickly replaced by a bright chance. These are all highly empathic struggles that tie into fears many children--many people--experience every day. Will I be too different? Will anyone ever love me? Will I have to abandon my aspirations so someone else can achieve theirs?
Ryan establishes that while these are universal battles, they’re also deeply personal to the protagonists. Friedrich’s birthmark and his habit of conducting music he hears only in his memory draws the bullies in droves. Mike has gone from the bosom of a happy family to a cold, miserable orphanage where nobody wants a kid as old as eleven. Ivy has only recently discovered her affinity for music, and she’s received almost no support from the people closest to her.
And they encounter more trials even as they navigate these vast challenges. Friedrich makes it to work safely, but he’s still got to contend with the Nazis he lives alongside every day--including his own sister, who’s so fanatically devoted to the party that she volunteers for sterilization once she learns her family may carry genetic “weaknesses.” Mike weathers a series of adoption obstacles, only to discover the person who finally offers him a home alongside his brother may have terrible motives for doing so. (She's not physically abusive. You don’t have to worry about that particular peril.) Ivy discovers her new home offers even more opportunities for her to embrace music, but she must fight racist social systems in order to access them.
It's the literary equivalent of listening to the harmonica. We begin with discord, then smooth things out, then return to a state of uncertainty and chaos. The tune calms down again, only to bombard the reader with auditory missiles a moment later. And Ryan pauses each child’s story just as the emotional peril reaches a crescendo.
The critic in me recognizes that many people may find Ryan’s choices emotionally manipulative, especially with regards to where she breaks each story. The engaged reader in me does not care, and I’m pretty sure those of you who get caught up in these kids' lives will feel the same.
ECHO did everything I want books to do. It took me straight inside each character’s world and forced me to live their story alongside them. It reminded me of what it was like to be eleven years old, then made me consider what it would be like to be eleven years old in incredibly difficult circumstances. I'm sure this will be even more powerful for those readers who actually are eleven years old, or who're fast approaching that age.
Most of all, it made me care deeply for each of these kids. I desperately wanted things on their behalf. Sometimes I wished they’d get relatively simple things, like opportunities to play music and revel in the sheer joy their instruments brought them. More often, I prayed they’d be free from the prejudice and uncertainty that plague their lives.
While there's more than a little darkness herein, let me assure you ECHO is strongly anti-Nazi, anti-racist, and pro-understanding; a message that should come standard, but that resonates on another level entirely given what’s going on down in America today. The text at once condemns these harmful, hateful doctrines and recognizes the circumstances that allow them to flourish--and the ways people can fight against them, both on their own behalf and when they see others threatened. Friedrich and his family try hard to live according to their beliefs in a world that continually denies them, but discover some circumstances may be unsalvageable. Mike understands both the negative impact Eunice’s actions have on his brother and the reasons Eunice feels she must act as she does. In facing the racism directed against herself and her father's Japanese-descended employers, Ivy comes to see the personal and cultural influences that let these attitudes flourish even as she learns strategies for changing peoples’ minds.
Every time a character speaks hate, the text makes it clear they're both wrong and human. People do and say awful things that the characters aren't remotely interested in excusing, but in searching for an explanation for these behaviors they can perhaps find a way to develop a more inclusive society.
The less engaged, more critical reader may find these messages less subtle than they’d prefer. Me, I feel one can’t speak out against Nazi ideals or racist attitudes often enough or loud enough.
I can’t possibly end off without highlighting the music. I strongly recommend you seek out the audio edition of ECHO if you possibly can, because the production takes the music that’s so vitally important to each child’s journey and effectively makes it a character in its own right. The harmonica has the largest presence, being so intimately connected to each character’s journey and to the framing story, but musicians who lend their talents to the book also provide piano, cello, and vocal pieces that are fully integrated into the performance. When Friedrich hears Brahms’ “Lullaby”, so do we. When Mike attempts a complicated song on the piano, we get his first fumbling attempts before he remembers the hang of it. When Ivy gives her new friend Susan a harmonica lesson, we listen to each of her demonstrations. It’s immersive and engaging and exactly the right approach for a book intimately concerned with music.
The entire thing comes together so beautifully that, as I said, I can’t find it in me to consider whether it might strike the occasional wrong note. As is the case with any composition, some readers/listeners will fail to connect with it and some will be so overcome by the sheer beauty of the phrasings that they’ll fall utterly and unconditionally in love with the whole damned thing, hypothetical warts and all.
I’m in the latter camp. To me, ECHO was perfect, and I know my eleven-year-old self would’ve felt the same. I wish I knew more children so I could urge every last one of them to read it.
I should note, too, that you're likely to see ECHO labeled as "genre defying". In my view, it's fantastical in the tradition of THE AMAZING ADVENTURES OF KAVALIER AND CLAY; which is to say, there's magic around the edges, but the core story is historical fiction. SFF readers will find something to like in the framing story's fairy tale and the harmonica's ultimate fate; genre deniers can pretend the fantasy’s all metaphor or whatever. Everyone goes away happy.