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Friday, May 29, 2015

Echo, written by Pam Munoz Ryan. Scholastic, 2015. $21.99 ages 9 and up

"Were they being watched? Would someone report them? How long until Uncle Gunter might be questioned, too? Once inside the house, Friedrich quickly gathered the photo of Father and Mother from his dresser, the sheet music for his audition, and his cello and bow. He patted his pocket to make sure the harmonica was still there."

Wonderfully woven into three stories that are connected by the magic of a harmonica, Pam Munoz Ryan has penned a tale that begins with Otto. He is playing games with friends when he sneaks into the forest to find the perfect hiding spot. As he waits patiently to return to the game (after everyone else has been found), he opens a book recently purchased from a Gypsy. It is of interest because the title bears his name, The Thirteenth Harmonica of Otto Messenger.

He reads about three baby princesses abandoned at birth by their father the King, because he needs a male heir. Otto is so caught up in his reading that he doesn't realize the forest is becoming dark. It is only then that he realizes he is lost, cold and afraid. As luck would have it, he finds three young women in a clearing. They ask him to read his book to them. In doing so, they learn their future:

"A messenger brought you about.
One-and-the-same must bring you out.
You may not leave in earthly form.
Your secrets to a woodwind born.
YOU save a soul from death's dark door,
or here you'll languish, evermore."

Their story is unfinished. When Otto shows them the harmonica that he bought from the same Gypsy, they promise they will save him, if he promises to pass it along to another. Then, they will be able to make their own journey to save a soul. It is late, he is tired. When he awakens in the morning, the girls are gone and so is the book; he has the harmonica. He will remember their promise to him:

"Your fate is not yet sealed.
Even in the darkest night, a star will shine,
a bell will chime, a path will be revealed."

No one believes the story he tells them; Otto never forgets the promise he made or that he is the messenger. He will send the harmonica out into the world. Everything in this wonderful book has happened,up until now, before we get to the title page. As we read on we are privileged to meet the three young people whose lives are forever changed by an encounter with that harmonica. It has a magical power that improves the lives they are living and brings light to the darkness that often envelops them. Friedrich lives in Germany during WWII and struggles to help his family survive the cruelties of a police state. Mike lives in Pennsylvania in 1933, an orphan after his grandmother's death and doing his best to assure that he and his little brother will not be separated. Ivy lives in California in December 1942, excluded from public school because she is Mexican-American, and only wanting a real home for her migrant family.

This is such a very special book to read, and to share. It is magical and historical, with characters sure to tug at your heartstrings. The harmonica provides a modicum of hope in dark times. Each of their stories ends with readers not knowing what will happen to them. Each of their tales are then connected as the book finishes. The ending is hopeful and filled with the magic of the music.

Four stories woven together by this incomparable artist left me wanting more; it is so powerful and memorable.  Once begun, it was hard to put down (despite its almost 600 pages). It reads quickly and is full of mystery and music, echoing what Freidrich's father believes .

 “Music is a universal language. A universal religion of sorts. Certainly it’s my religion. Music surpasses all distinctions between people.”

Brave, tolerant and exceptionally kind, please read it!

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