Tuesday, January 19, 2016

Review: Echo by Pam Muñoz Ryan

Title: Echo
Author: Pam Muñoz Ryan
Publisher: Scholastic Press
Publication date: February 24, 2015
Rating: ★★★★

Summary (via Goodreads):

Lost and alone in a forbidden forest, Otto meets three mysterious sisters and suddenly finds himself entwined in a puzzling quest involving a prophecy, a promise, and a harmonica.

Decades later, Friedrich in Germany, Mike in Pennsylvania, and Ivy in California each, in turn, become interwoven when the very same harmonica lands in their lives. All the children face daunting challenges: rescuing a father, protecting a brother, holding a family together. And ultimately, pulled by the invisible thread of destiny, their suspenseful solo stories converge in an orchestral crescendo.

Richly imagined and masterfully crafted, ECHO pushes the boundaries of genre and form, and shows us what is possible in how we tell stories. The result is an impassioned, uplifting, and virtuosic tour de force that will resound in your heart long after the last note has been struck.

Pam Muñoz Ryan was one of those authors I was lucky enough to discover at an early age. I happened to randomly pick up Esperanza Rising at a school book fair way back in 2000 and it immediately became one of my favorite books. I must have read it a dozen times, I loved it so much – so when I read an article a few months back that she had won the Kirkus Prize for Young Readers' Literature for her new book, Echo, and when I saw it at a bookstore a few weeks later, I knew I couldn't leave it behind.

Echo is a gorgeous book, from the way the cover and pages are designed, to the imagery and the way the setting is described (which, in my opinion, has always been one of the author's greatest strengths), to the magical storytelling – a fairytale that briefly follows the lives of three children living in three different "eras" in history: Hitler's Germany, the Great Depression, and post-WWII segregation in the United States. Broken into separate narratives, Friedrich, Mike, and Ivy's experiences are each filtered through an historical backdrop. The tension slowly builds and the stakes continue to rise until each of their tales reaches a climax... and then, strangely, it's like the book just fades to black.

This is my biggest gripe, and it's also why I think Echo feels a bit like a beautiful writing project – because it starts with a thread of an interesting concept (a prophecy and a harmonica), but it doesn't get developed in a gratifying way. The pacing is off. Pam Muñoz Ryan lays the foundation for an important chapter in each of these characters' lives, and at the most gripping moment, she cuts off the story. We find out what happens later on, but by then she's just telling us what we missed, a passive recap that feels like a letdown. At nearly 600 pages, this book is already quite hefty, but I actually wish the author had drawn out the story even more.

I'm not sure if it's because Echo is labeled as a middle grade book that the conflict resolution is lacking (I've had a similar observation with other MG books I've read – perhaps the more sordid bits are not deemed appropriate or relevant for younger readers?), but either way it's a shame. For me, this book could have been a five-star read if only the story felt more complete. Everything else is there – the subtle bits of magical realism that sweep you away, the characters that you can't help but root for, the diversity of their backgrounds and experiences, the beautiful writing, the story's overall brilliant premise, and the way everything comes full circle...

Normally, a gaping plot hole would make me dismiss a book entirely, but what makes me relent is the fact that, quite simply, this novel is about hope. It's about three young protagonists, and how a harmonica comes into their lives at exactly the right time, and how it connects them all, and how things happen for a reason. Synchronicity, you could say. So, to that end, I can somewhat come to terms with the author's decision to exclude the parts that she did... because the whole is more than just the sum of its parts, and in Echo, there's something much bigger at play.

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

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