Pam Munoz Ryan
Scholastic, 2015 592 pgs
Master storyteller, Pam Munoz Ryan pens perhaps her greatest work to date, a blend of historical fiction and fairy tale. Our story starts with a prequel, featuring a boy from distant Germany named Otto. While lost in the woods, Otto discovers a mysterious book relating a tale, which comes to life as he meets three bewitched sisters and receives an enchanted harmonica. The harmonica becomes the thread in the book connecting the three main sections, all with separate stories and characters. We travel ahead to the rise of Nazi Germany, where Friedrich is facing persecution for a birthmark on his face and his tendency to be different. He and his musician father must flee the Nazi's before they are exterminated as enemies of the state. Friedrich, a natural musician, must leave behind his beloved harmonica in order to risk everything to save his father and escape to safety. The harmonica next travels to a music store in Pennsylvania, USA during the Great Depression. Orphans Mike and Frankie face separation and forced labor when they miraculously are adopted by a rich lady and befriended by her lawyer. What appears to be a dream come true turns dark as Mike realizes that the rich lady doesn't really want them, especially himself as the older boy. Mike plans to leave with his newly purchased harmonica to join a famous boys harmonica band, leaving Frankie to enjoy a comfortable life of luxury, when, unexpectedly, tragedy strikes. Our harmonica travels across the US to a small town in rural California during WWII. Ivy is missing her brother, who is serving overseas, and escapes into her music as a means of coping with the loss and the prejudice facing her Mexican family and her Japanese neighbors, who have been sent to deportment camps. Finally, all three stories and characters are brought together in an unexpected place by the power of music, where the spell is broken and the three bewitched sisters from the introduction are at last set free.
I'm a big fan of Pam Munoz Ryan and, in my humble opinion, this is her masterpiece. She manages to combine three (and a half) powerful stories, all reflecting crucial and difficult events in the mid twentieth century. The history is powerful, present, and accurate. The reader will empathize with the characters and experience their struggles, living through these turbulent times in our recent history. The fantasy is gentle, except for the fairy tale introduced at the beginning of the book and tying everything together at the end. It serves more as a backdrop, turning what could be a brutally harsh book into more of a lyrical fable. The real star of the story is the special harmonica, which changes every life who owns it and, finally, literally saves someone's life. The power of music is a reoccurring theme to the book and is what not only unites the characters, but helps to define and save them. I listened to this book on audio, which I would highly recommend. The production utilizes different narrators for each portion of the book and is peppered with brilliant harmonica music, as well as piano and cello where appropriate to the plot. Hearing the harmonica music during the narration greatly enhanced my reading experience. This is a high quality book that is showing up on many people's "best books of the year" lists--and for good reason. One possible negative is that it is a little long for the target audience. Because the book is really three books in one, I didn't personally find the length to be a problem. All three plots are riveting, beautifully written, and move quickly. Unexpected plot turns and cliff-hangers will further lead readers to the next section of the volume. The conclusion ends a bit too unrealistically happy for my liking, but young readers will be very satisfied and, after all, this book is for them. A lyrical sympathy that deserves a standing ovation.