Pam Muñoz Ryan’s novel Echo tells the magical stories of Friedrich, Mike and Ivy, three children living on different continents, facing difficult circumstances in their lives. Music is the passion all of them share, and also the element which connects their stories. The book is divided into three interrelated books, which finally collide in the fourth. The background story is told in the form of a fairytale and summarized as follows:
Beginning with a fairytale, Muñoz Ryan introduces the character of Otto. The novel travels back in time into the year 1930 – Otto finds himself lost in a dark forest somewhere in Germany. Desperately searching for his way home, he meets three sisters called Eins, Zwei and Drei, who have been cursed to stay inside the woods, until they rescue a soul. To make their situation worse, they are only able to escape the forest within a woodwind. As Otto is eager to help the fairies, he displays the only instrument he carries with him – a harmonica. The fairies play the instrument and extraordinary music fills the woods. Their souls are now within the instrument and ready to start their mission.
As if by magic, Otto is rescued on the next morning and finds his way back home. As time passes, he finds work at the local harmonica factory and his memories about this special night and the three fairies fade. Before an important submission date at work, Otto’s dog destroys one of the ordered harmonicas and Otto has to replace it by the magical harmonica of his youth. This is the moment the harmonica starts its magical journey which will lead through the lives of the Friedrich, Mike and Ivy.
The First Book – Friedrich
Friedrich Schmidt is a young German boy and the first person who gets in touch with the enchanted instrument. Just like Otto, Friedrich works at a harmonica factory in Trossingen, a town between the Black Forest and the Swabian Alps. He dreams of becoming a famous conductor, as he is passionate about all forms of music. Sadly, he cannot see his dream come true, as he is not regarded to conform to the ideal image of the perfect German boy in Nazi Germany. This results from a birthmark which covers his face. Friedrich does not only have to face discrimination because of his outer appearance, but even worse he has to cope with the dangers of persecution. His father is arrested for being a sympathizer of the Jewish community. Before Friedrich starts his journey of rescuing his father, he remembers his uncle’s warning, not to take anything of personal value with him. For this reason, he wraps his beloved harmonica in a box and hides it between the other harmonicas of the factory, which are about to be shipped to America. The story peaks with Friedrich’s arrest by two soldiers.
The Second Book – Mike
In chapter two, the story switches to Mike Flannery and his younger brother Frankie. Living in Pennsylvania in the year 1935, their childhood is characterized by the omnipresent fear of being separated. Both brothers live and work in an orphanage, as their parents died in their early childhood. Music is and has been the only constant and joy in their lives: They were taught to play the piano by their grandmother. Their musical talent is also the crucial factor for their adoption by Eunice Dow Sturbridge. What initially looks like the long-desired miracle: Both boys can stay together in a nice house, with a caring mother; turns out to be more complicated than they thought. Their potential mother does not want to adopt two boys, as she would prefer one girl. Although Mike and Frankie try everything to please and charm her, she refuses to get in touch with them. Mr. Howard, the lawyer and a friend of the family, cares for Mike and Frankie and takes them on trips, where they buy two harmonicas. Somehow and inexplicably, Mike is attracted by one special harmonica: The one which has already been played by Friedrich in Germany.
The boys practice their playing, but not even Mike’s extraordinary beautiful playing the piano seems to melt Miss Sturbridge’s heart. He agrees on leaving the house after the summer, to the condition that at least his brother can stay and is looked after by a mother. To be able to earn a living after the deadline in summer, Mike tries his luck at a music competition. He is one of the winners and the boys’ situation seems to be settled: Frankie is going to live with Eunice, whereas Mike is going to be on tour with the band of the music competition. Just when the situation seems to calm down, he finds out about the adoption process not yet being finalized.
The Third Story – Ivy
Ivy Maria Lopez is a young Hispanic girl and the protagonist of Muñoz Ryan’s third chapter. Constantly moving around in Southern America, Ivy has no chance to settle and make friends. She has a great musical talent and was promised to play a solo on her harmonica during a radio program. Before she can perform together with her class, her family has to leave the city. Her father has a new job near Los Angeles. Ivy is very disappointed but remembers the promise she gave to her brother Fernando, who is currently fighting in the war in Europe: She agreed on being a good little soldier at home. Therefore, she finally gives in and agrees to moving to Orange County.
At their new home, the family manages the farm of the Yamamotos, a Japanese family who has been sent to an internment camp. Ivy seems to come to terms with the new situation when she makes friends with the neighboring girl Susan. These circumstances change, when Ivy is confronted with racism at her new home. Like all other Hispanic children, she has to attend a separate school with an “Americanization program”, although she speaks English perfectly. The young girl manages to endure the situation with the help of music.
One day, Kenny Yamamoto, the owners’ son visits the farm on his few days off from war, to conclude the family’s contracts with the Lopez’. Ivy and Kenny like each other right from the start. As a symbol of sympathy, Ivy gives the harmonica as a present to Kenny, which turns out to save his life during the war. A bullet is deflected by the harmonica he carries in his chest pocket every day. So not only Kenny’s life is saved by the magical instrument, but also the spell on the three fairies Eins, Zwei and Drei is broken.
The Fourth Book – Friedrich, Mike and Ivy
The three stories culminate in the fourth chapter, in which the difficulties of the past are solved, and the main characters meet in Carnegie Hall in New York City. Friedrich Schmidt is a famous conductor, who is just about to conduct the Empire Philharmonic in which Mike plays a solo since he is a renowned pianist. Not only Mike, but also Ivy is part of the orchestra around Friedrich, playing the part of the second flute. Together they perform in New York and create a magical atmosphere through the one passion they all share: Music.