Saturday, July 18, 2015

Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Fairy tales, magic, suffering, and music in four parts that swirl together at the end like an imaginary symphony. I am always swept up in Pam Munoz Ryan's stories. Her musical way with words and terrific character developments are full of tension and emotion hitting the right chords with me. The author takes risks with this story creating a complex blend of fairy tale and historical genre. Her ending tells and doesn't show. This removes the climax and results in sections ending on cliffhangers. However, the characters are not left dangling and they do have emotional resolutions. This is not the norm for narrative fiction so some might not like the style. I did. More importantly the story reminded me that in dark times there is beauty whether it is in music or reading or spending time with loved ones.

The story is framed by a fairy tale that sets the tone for a magical instrument that makes it way through the real lives of Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy. The instrument symbolizes hope, for when the current owner plays it, he or she feels strong and optimistic about the future regardless of his or her bad circumstances. The beauty of literature is that readers can make connections between the plot and their lives; thus finding meanings that help in the pursuit of understanding life. I happened to be reading this when my mom died and was comforted by the symbolism of music in this story. Music in the fairy tale prologue helped the sisters in the drudgery of their lives. When the witch cursed them, their souls were tied to a woodwind instrument or a harmonica. It is not a flashy instrument and is often overlooked or considered inferior. This rich symbolism and imagery can be applied to humans too. My mom preferred to not be in the limelight and I kept thinking she was like a harmonica in our family.

In the fairy tale, the three sisters want to go home but the jealous witch wants them for herself and curses them. They can only leave if they save a soul from "death's dark door." Their story, read aloud by the character, Otto, was unfinished and they had the choice of how to write their own ending. Their future was not determined by Fate. However, their fate did rely on a messenger bringing them out of the woods and them helping someone on the brink of death. This is the setup for the next three parts where the harmonica travels through different peoples lives and saves them. The parts end on a cliffhanger and there is no climax. Instead the author ties the stories together in an unusual way using leitmotifs found in the beginning prophecy.

Strong themes on death, tolerance, and loyalties fill the pages. Death can manifest in physical, mental, and spiritual ways for people. Friedrich lives in Germany as the Nazi's come to power and changes are made in his community that marginalize Jews, outspoken citizens, disabled people, or anyone outside the norm established by the Reich. Twelve-year-old Friedrich has a large birthmark on his cheek and likes to swing his hands in the air conducting an imaginary symphony. He is bullied at school to the point where his arm is broken. His father is an honest, good man that does not like the changes in his country where friends turn against friends and neighbors turn against neighbors out of fear. He does not have much self-preservation nor foresight for he suffers a bit from denial. He cannot believe how people will only look at the outward appearances rather than internal character in each other. When his daughter joins the Nazi Youth he is crushed and afraid for the first time. But nothing is as it seems and the author catches the complexity of humans and how people get trapped by the promises of a government that become more and more extreme in its persecution. Again, music rises above all prejudices and draws no lines in the sand. The end of the story refers to the fairy tale in the beginning by making Friedrich the new messenger (versus Otto) who must save a soul.

The second part involves eleven-year-old, Mike, and his seven-year-old brother, Frankie that live in an orphanage. Mike is a gifted pianist. When Mrs. Sturbridge takes the two boys in, Mike and Frankie have gone from poor to wealthy. It seems too good to be true and sure enough Mike discovers Mrs. Sturbridge only wants to keep Frankie. He makes a deal with her that he will leave by earning an internship with a harmonica band. In a subplot the boys are mistreated at a department store because they are dressed shabby. Again, people are wrongly accused based on appearances and not what is inside of them. In part one entire races are deemed worthless based on what is on the outside; whereas, here appearances and intolerance are examined on an individual basis.

There is foreshadowing that a soul needs to be saved from death. This is one leitmotif that is carried from the fairy tale beginning. The prophecy in the prologue talks about fate not sealed, stars shining in the darkest night, and bells chiming to signal a path for a person to choose. Before the reader knows Mike's fate he thinks, "Above him, the dark, gnarled branches of the elm reached toward the heavens like a witch's crooked fingers. And yet, even in this strange limbo, Mike saw stars above him, tiny dots of light bobbing in and out from behind the fluttering leaves." And added to that "...the wind blew a chord through the harmonic clutched in his hand." The prophecy contains leitmotifs (death, stars, bells, messengers) and recurring themes that can be found throughout the entire book connecting the stories. This original and unique plot layout was interesting for me, but I can see others that might not like it. I'll be curious what the students think at my school.

Part three covers Ivy, a flute prodigy, and first generation Mexican-American living in the 1940s. She plays in a harmonica band at school before having to move. Her father got a job watching the Japanese-American Yamamoto's family farm who was forced to move to a U.S. internment camp. Ivy must adjust to losing a friend and being forced to go to an inferior school in Orange County, Los Angeles. Her father fights the discriminatory laws that affect his daughter's education but change is slow. Meanwhile, Ivy makes friends with a white girl but they must meet in secret because the girl's father will disapprove. He has been buying up local farms owned by Japanese families forced to sell by the U.S. government and has his eye on the Yamamoto's farm. He has lost his sons in the war and is full of anger and grief. Again, music is woven into the story with parents that don't appreciate Ivy's talent and a Japanese farming family that loves music. Again, appearances are not everything and I was reminded of Jacob Grimm's "The Bremen Town Musicians."

"Echo" shows how bleak the world was for the characters during this time in history, and how music lifted them up to a beautiful place. The music also showed not only the physical but the emotional state of the characters and how it helped them understand what was going on around them and inside of themselves. Reading stories is like that too. The inner state of the reader can be illuminated by the plot or character development. At least for me and I found an emotional resonance in Munoz's words. You'll have to see what chord it plays inside you.

5 Smileys

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