I first read this lovely book back in the spring (almost 9 months ago now). In order to review it professionally for World, I’ve been skimming back through it this week. I didn’t originally think it *amazing* enough for something like a Newbery Honor, but I must say: on a re-read, it totally delivers. And that’s exactly the job of those award committees: to parse out the books that keep giving back to their readers.
The book opens with Otto meeting three sisters, trapped in a wood, right in the middle of the story he’s been reading about them. The book he’s been reading has come to life! But it has no ending. Otto helps “release” the three sisters, trapping their life spirits in a harmonica with the mission to save other souls from death’s dark door.
Otto’s experience serves as an introduction to the three primary stories. The magical harmonica weaves together three seemingly disparate stories, each featuring an adolescent facing real trouble who is a “child who needed the world to seem brighter with more possibilities, and want[ing] to testify to feelings in her or her heart” through music. The first is Freidrich, born with an appalling birthmark and the stamp of epilepsy on the eve of Nazi Germany. Politics are not going his way: he must escape along with his father and uncle or risk submitting to a sketchy “sterilization” surgery so that he cannot pass on his troubling genes to future Germans. Fredrick is a talented musician and plays a special harmonica surprisingly well.* The second story occurs a few years later in America as brothers Mike and Frankie desperately hope to find a new permanent home, together and out of the orphanage. Mike plays the same special harmonica as he practices to get into a unique youth harmonica orchestra, hoping to then secure his fortune (or at least his room and board). Ivy takes center stage in the third story. Her Mexican family has moved to a new farm and is facing harsh segregation for the first time in their lives. With her older brother off fighting in the war, the former Japanese tenants off in an internment camp, and a new school, Ivy takes solace in playing… her special harmonica.
The harmonica weaves the three stories together, providing the melody line amidst the harmonious chords of the surrounding circumstances. All three stories come together in a not-unexpected epilogue that is no less welcome for its predictability. Each of the three stories ended on a cliffhanger, and the epilogue provides the final notes as the three come together: Friedrich conducting, Mike playing the piano, and Ivy playing the flute. And, finally, Otto’s final story is told and the three sisters are released from their fate forever.
At nearly 600 pages, this is not an easy book to sum up. And yet, there is a clear melody: the unfortunate–be they physically handicapped, socioeconomically disadvantaged, or victims of racial prejudice–all have a song to sing.
*I really appreciate that Ryan looked at the tumultuous years in and around WWII through the lens of something other than the Holocaust. While the Holocaust is a worthy subject, we have so many excellent books on it. This novel sheds light on the other–equally worthy–issues such as the Nazis’ rigid definitions of people’s worth based on their physical appearance, the harsh realities of racial inequality in our own country then, and the struggles of many as they came out of the Great Depression.