imagesWhen my ninety year old father-in-law requested a harmonica as a birthday gift, I was surprised at his ability to play old singalong tunes he had learned in his younger days.  The notes from his harmonica seemed as magical as the one Pam Munoz Ryan uses as the focus for her children’s 9780439874021_p0_v1_s192x300book – Echo.

The story begins and ends with a fairy tale, lending a mystical quality to the lives of the three young children who play the harmonica, as it is passed on from person and place.  Ryan uses World War II as the setting, and targets children with a talent for music.  Each child also has an obstacle to overcome, with music as their savior.The book is divided into three separate tales and each section ends with a cliffhanger, until all ends well as the grown-up children come together in the end.

Years after Otto receives the enchanted harmonica, mysteriously imbued with the voices of three abandoned princesses in the forest, Freidrich finds the harmonica in the local harmonica factory in 1933 Germany. Freidrich conducts symphonies in his head, despite ridicule from others and the purple birthmark on his face. Although his sister, Elizabeth, has joined the Nazi youth group, Freidrich, his father and his uncle, resist, and are targeted for questioning.

Mike and Frankie are orphans in what could be Miss Hannigan’s horrible home for boys in 1935 Philadelphia.  Both have a talent for the piano, and are miraculously adopted by a female Daddy Warbucks character, who also happens to be a former concert pianist.  Threatened by the possibility of being sent back to the home (Auntie really wanted a girl to adopt), Mike makes a deal – if he wins a spot in the national touring harmonica orchestra, his younger brother will not be sent back to the orphanage.

Finally, Ivy Lopez is the newest owner of the harmonica.  Her story in 1942 Southern California, a year after Pearl Harbor, focuses on racism and discrimination against migrant farm laborers and Japanese Americans.  Ivy’s father is hired to oversee a farm in Orange County, whose Japanese-American owners, the Yamamotos, have been sent to an internment camp. Ivy is forced to attend a separate school but is allowed to join the after school orchestra in the main school. She finds solace in music, and passes on the harmonica to the young Yamamoto who visits his family’s old farm before going off to war.

The story follows a formula for each section, providing historical information within the context of well-rounded characters.  Although the plots are sometimes hokey, the characters redeem the message of strength and courage. When Ryan pulls all the players together in the end, the resolutions to their trials seem contrived, but the endings justify their persistence and, anyway, fairy tales should always have happy endings.

The book is a little long and one of the stories could have been omitted but the careful attention to history and prejudice is worth the read – at any age.

Life After Life: A Novel

“Ursula’s life begins, ends, rewinds, begins again – and again – in Kate Atkinson’s Life After Life.   Would she ever get it right?


Atkinson’s use of rewriting the same chapters cleverly demonstrates that road not travelled.  Each time Ursula dies, the story rewinds to the alternative possibility.  If the cord had not strangled her at birth, if she had not reached for her doll and fallen off the roof, if she had not drowned in the ocean, or died young from the flu – Atkinson notes: “Such a fine line between living and dying…”

As the story progresses, and Ursula grows into her sixteenth birthday, another milestone, the difference between being kissed, by whom, and how, changes her future.  When she decides to leave her bucolic home as a young British woman venturing into the world, the choices seem inconsequential but they are not.  Atkinson writes Ursula into several possible lives – after she forgoes university to attend secretarial school – or graduates and spends a year abroad.  Even her study major makes a difference.

As Ursula matures, she begins to recognize the signs of a former life, sometimes to the point of trying to control the outcome.  When Bridget, the maid and carrier of the deadly flu, returns again and again, ending Ursula’s new lives, Ursula decides to take care of matters herself by pushing Bridget down the stairs.  Her parents, taking a dim view of her déjà vu, sign her up for a psychiatrist.

When the book opens, Ursula has just shot Hitler.  Eventually, her life rewinds back to this scene, but not before Atkinson has filled the pages with scenes of war from all perspectives and from both sides of the Channel.  Ursula’s roles in different lives range from British air raid warden to Eva Braun’s confidante at Hitler’s retreat in Berghof.  Descriptions of the Blitz carry the central focus of the novel and take you not only to the underground holes and devastating terror, but also to the lives of those trying to survive.

As I became invested in Ursula, the story became interactive.  I worried over her, knowing that the murderer was around the bend, or that the wall would fall on her – wanting to shout to her to stop.  When all seemed lost, I knew Atkinson would soon rewind and all would be well again in another chance – wouldn’t it?

Eventually, Ursula realizes her retakes in life carry a purpose.  She decides to focus and use her decisions to get her there – until eventually she does loop back to the opening chapter and change the world.  But Atkinson does not end the book there; she keeps rewinding…

“Don’t you wonder if just one small thing had been changed in the past…surely things would be different.”

What if one small thing had been changed in your life – in your decisions – makes you wonder….

My reading of the book reflected its theme: I started reading the first few pages; Ursula died.  I stopped, packed, saved her for my long plane ride.  Ursula lived again, and died again as an infant. When Ursula finally progressed to her fifth birthday; my Kindle battery died.  Travel in Spain distracted me and I did not return to the book – until a friend gave me a paperback copy of Atkinson’s first book Behind the Scenes at the Museum – and I remembered.    What would have happened if I had never finally read the book?  Like Ursula, I would have missed the most important part and an amazing adventure.