This week, I listened to the audiobook Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan. This book had a profound impact on me for so many reasons, and the greatest treasure of this story is that it’s written for children but has the power to speak to anyone.
Echo is four stories wound into one, one of which is almost a folktale, and three of which are about three different children–Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy–and their lives during the tumultuous time of World War II. Each story is staggered and feeds into the next one, for one epic finale that I will try hard not to spoil here. All I will say is that the one thing holding them together is a harmonica, which mysteriously appears in each of the stories.
I don’t read a lot of historical fiction, but this book engaged me from the first page. In a way, the stories were timeless even as they were attached to a time period. Munoz Ryan follows her characters closely enough that important references to significant events like the Holocaust and Pearl Harbor serve as landmarks more than important plot points. I also think this particular novel, in using a historical setting, still has a profound message to offer to contemporary American culture. As I was listening to the stories, some of the conversations and experiences felt by central and exterior characters gave me goosebumps, because what was said in the 1930’s and ’40’s sounds disturbingly like some of what is rising in our political climate today. It was almost scary, as an adult reading a children’s book about people who lived during Hitler’s reign, to think about there being any parallels between that time and ours, but Munoz Ryan subtly points them out–whether intentionally or unintentionally–in the most profound ways. Even as a historical fiction book, this story is timeless.
Perhaps the most disturbing part of this book in consideration of its main genre (juvenile/young readers), is the fact that each story ends at first with a cliffhanger. All four characters come to a time when it seems that hope is lost, and their story pauses until the very end. And, really, the end does not directly address what happened to immediately resolve whatever situation the characters were left in. It is set, instead, several years into the future when all three of the children are grown and reflecting back on their experiences. I am proud of Munoz Ryan for including this in a book meant for young readers. I think, too often, we are quick to protect children from the reality that life offers no easy answers. This is particularly true in literature. Books have quick resolutions–both because of the shorter texts for easier reading and because the Happy Ending seems so very important. Munoz Ryan forgets both of these things, and writes a lengthy text full of despair and angst. The Happy Ending is still (relatively) present, but readers have to commit to the story to get there, which makes it that much more beautiful.
The children in this book experience serious hardships in life; however, despite some of the extremes experienced by them contributed by the time period and the story itself, the messages are still relatable. Friedrich is bullied for most of his life due to his birthmark. While children today (hopefully) do not have to fear that they will be sterilized or sent to a concentration camp for not meeting a particular higher standard of “human,” bullying is an issue that culture is still trying to resolve. Moreover, body image issues are a very real and present problem with people of all ages, even those who are very young. Friedrich’s experiences are still relevant today, and I’m sure many young people have felt comforted and connected to him for what he went through.
Friedrich and Mike are also missing parents. Mike is an orphan who feels very responsible for his little brother, and Friedrich’s mom died shortly after he was born. In a time when broken families and single parents are a perfect example of the norm, young people must feel connected to these boys who are raised and adopted by single individuals (Mr. Howard, of course, serves as a good example of the “stepfather,” or the newer adult addition to a family). Each of these boys experience their struggles around specific contexts, but the timelessness of belonging and love lead their stories to speak to people today as well.
Ivy’s family is transient, and she is constantly experiencing what it is like to be the New Kid. Her story is unique due to the nature of her dad’s job (in connection with the Japanese internment camps) and her special school, but the anxiety she experiences over making new friends and going to a new school are extremely relevant. Moreover, she has a family member in the armed forces and for the first time her life must learn how to live normally without her brother with her. These emotions she goes through can mirror what children and young readers still experience and provide them comfort that they are not alone in what they are going through.
These struggles, while told through a child’s perspective, can also speak profoundly to any reader. I was rooting for each of the characters to find success, to be safe. Each segment held my attention to the end, and I desperately wanted to reach the point in the story where I would know that everything would be okay. Each experience spoke to me in my past and present, and in so many ways brought me comfort that I didn’t even know I needed.
Munoz Ryan’s storytelling talent goes beyond just captivating characters; it shines brightly through the plot that twists and winds in several directions until, quite unexpectedly, even the mysterious folktale becomes linked to everyone else. The coincidences are a stretch, but not unbelievable. Everyone is brought together at the right place and right time because of powerful circumstances, and not convenience. In every chapter and on every page, Munoz Ryan builds toward a crescendo that resounds with hope and community, reminding us that these characters endured and flourished and that they found a place they belonged. There are many great storytellers out there who manage to make small connections between the beginning and end of their tales, and Munoz Ryan should be included among them.
One way in which the audiobook was made even better than the physical one, in my opinion, is that the music associated with each person and on each instrument was played and sung in the backgrounds of the chapters! Harmonicas haunted the openings and closings of each Part. Pianos and singers hummed out familiar tunes in context with the stories. It definitely pulled you into the story more, and as a music lover I appreciated the aesthetic results. It makes me wonder how you could enjoy this book in print without also looking up music and songs to accompany when they are mentioned in the story!
I cannot say enough that, regardless of your age, your preferred genres, your experiences, or your perspectives, you should read this book. The message is more than timeless; it’s relevant. The stories reflect on an important time in our country’s history (a time that has a certain amount of significance today), and yet it is coupled with just the right about of fantasy to make it magical. Echo left a big impression on me that will resound for many books to come.