Echo begins with a fairy tale about three princesses who are saved by a midwife at birth despite the wicked king’s order for their deaths. The midwife gives them to a witch who treats them as slaves. Eventually the princesses are retrieved by their family, but the witch is angry and puts a spell on them. In order to release themselves, they put their voices into a harmonica and send it out into the world with a young man named Otto, hoping to save someone’s life and break the spell.
That introduction sends the reader spiraling through time to Friedrich, a boy born with epilepsy and a disfiguring facial birthmark who has a gift for playing the harmonica and a burning desire to be a conductor. Unfortunately, the Third Reich sees him as someone who is defective and needs to be sterilized; will the harmonica be able to save his life?
Next, the story jumps to Michael and Franklin Flannery, two orphan brothers in 1935 California who are adopted by a woman who doesn’t want them, but needs them to keep her inheritance. Michael hatches a plan to become a good enough harmonica player to join the famous Philadelphia Harmonica Band. He’s already a talented pianist, and seems to have a real feel for the harmonica. But, when he puts himself in danger trying to rescue his brother, will the harmonica be able to save him?
As World War II heats up, Ivy Lopez comes into possession of the bespelled harmonica. She is also a talented musician, but is treated as a second-class citizen in a California filled with fear of the spies that might be lurking in the guise of neighbors. Her family is hired to be caretakers of a farm owned by Japanese-Americans who have been interred. She always gave harmonica concerts for her brother before he went away to war, but is learning to play the flute. When she meets Kenny, the military son of the Japanese-American family, she sees something of her brother in him, and decides to give the harmonica to him. But can it save his life?
The book ends by bringing all of these threads together in a beautiful coda. Five cliff hangers are resolved in a very satisfactory manner. I don’t particularly like cliff hangers, but Muñoz Ryan does a good job of hooking you into the next story and tying all the threads together. Put this book into the hands of kids who like historical fiction, or a bit of magical reality. Don’t give it to kids who will be frustrated by the convoluted plot.