Author: Pam Munoz Ryan
KidLit – Historical Fiction/Magical Realism
Release Date: February 24, 2015
Source: Giveaway (I think!)
I was just chilling at work one day when I received a phone call from the receptionist, asking me to come up front to the lobby. I had no idea what she needed from me, but I trekked down the hallway, my curiosity growing. When I reached the lobby, she handed me a package and simply said, “This just came for you”. The return address gave me no clues. I hadn’t ordered anything. Wasn’t expecting anything. So it was a pleasant surprise to rip open the package and find this little gem inside.
I haven’t heard a ton of buzz on this one, so when I started reading, I was completely unfamiliar with the story. Turns out, this is a nice mix of historical fiction with a little magical realism thrown in. Each section of the book centers on a different, seemingly unrelated character. First there’s Friedrich, a German boy with a facial birthmark living under Hitler’s regime. Friedrich just wants to become a conductor for an orchestra, but that seems unlikely to happen since his family is fleeing from their country. Then come Mike and Frankie, two brothers who have been living in an orphanage ever since their grandmother died. The boys just want to stay together and be adopted by a real family who will love them. To cope, Mike uses music, specifically the piano, which holds fond memories of taking lessons from his grandmother. Finally, there’s Ivy. Her father moves the family across the state to pursue more opportunities for them, but Ivy ends up in a worse school, where’s she treated unfairly. She remembers her brother’s instruction to keep playing music to bring joy into the world, so she joins the school orchestra and learns flute.
As it turns out, however, the real star isn’t any of the characters, but a simple harmonica. Friedrich works in a harmonica factory. Mike buys a harmonica to audition for a famous harmonica orchestra in the hopes that it holds the future he has imagined. And Ivy uses the harmonica to bring joy into the lives of her brother and parents. But the harmonica is far more important overall, which is where the magical realism element comes in. The story opens and closes with a fairy tale-ish segment, where a boy named Otto is given a harmonica and told that the harmonica must be used to save a life in order to break a curse on three princesses.
The description may sound a little disjointed, but overall, it really works. I was immediately entranced by the beautiful, lilting quality of the writing at the beginning, and I continued to fall in love with the book the more I read. Ryan has a way with words that just drew me into each character’s story, making it feel as though I was there with them, fighting the same injustices they faced. My emotions were ping-ponging all over the place, between indignation and despair and hope and sadness. At one point I was reading in the break room at work and just trying to hold it together so that if a coworker walked in, I wouldn’t be sitting there sobbing into the pages.
And I LOVED LOVED LOVED the end. Each story segment kinda breaks off at a crucial moment in each character’s life, leaving you to wonder what happens next. Did their dreams come true? Or is it just over for them? But the end drew everything together in such a beautiful way that left me stunned. Remember that old Paul Harvey radio segment called “The Rest of the Story”? He would start spinning a tale, then leave off on an impossible cliffhanger. When you thought you couldn’t take it anymore, you would learn the rest of the story, usually something ironic or incredible that completely changed everything. I immediately thought of that program as I was finishing this book.
Guys, this was a surprise gem in my life. It was unexpected and unknown. But oh, was it good! I can’t wait for you all to read it, then come back and talk to me about it. Please?