August 26, 2016

Reading : Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan

Many years ago when I drove with a medical school classmate from Connecticut to the Southwest and back, we thought we'd try listening to books on tape.  Because we were traveling to the South, she chose a Southern writer and somehow we ended up starting Light in August by William Faulkner. So...we listened to that for a few minutes, whoever was the passenger fell asleep and the driver switched the the radio, and I figured audiobooks weren't for me.

Then a couple years ago, I was working nights in the hospital and I wanted something to help me fall back asleep after being woken up in the middle of the night by pages.  I always find it really difficult to calm my mind in these situations, and I didn't want to read a book because that would mean having to leave the light on, which also disrupts my sleep (medical training screws up your sleep resilience like nothing else).  So I gave audiobooks another shot, and started listening to The Art of Hearing Heartbeats by Jan-Philipp Sendker.  It was perfect for nights at the hospital--a very soothing narrative voice and calmly paced story.  It's a book that I don't think I would have enjoyed much as a written book, but is a small treasure read aloud in the right setting.

And so I got hooked, and for about a year I stopped reading altogether and only listened.  Now I recognize that not all books are made better by audio, and do a combination of both. But there are many where the medium of spoken narrative completely changes the book experience for the better and I can't imagine readng it in any other form.

One of these is Echo by Pam Munoz Ryan.  It's a children's book that won a 2016 Newbery Honor Award, and the book itself received a lot of rave reviews.  But I think the audiobook is really where it shines, because it's a book about music, and the audio version very creatively incorporates the actual music.

Echo is another in a string of World War II books I've been reading about how struggles bring about the intersection of parallel lives.  It tells three distinct stories of children growing up in different places at different times, who are connected by their possession of a special harmonica and their gift of playing it.

Friedrich is a twelve-year-old boy growing up in the throes of Nazi Germany. The birthmark on his face and his family's anti-Nazi politics make him a literal and conceptual target of Hitler's regime. His only source of power comes from his unique ability to play a harmonica, an instrument small enough to keep close at all times and with sound loud enough to give him voice in a world that otherwise wants to shut him out.

The harmonica makes its way to a young orphan named Mike living in Pennsylvania during the Great Depression.  His main mission in life is to find a family and home that will keep him together with his younger brother Frankie.  Again it's music, and the harmonica, that play a literally instrumental role in trying to achieve this.

Later, the harmonica is in the hands of Ivy, the American-born daughter of migrant farm workers from Mexico. As her father takes over the farm of a Japanese-American family that has been sent to an internment camp, she witnesses the fear-driven racism resulting from Pearl Harbor.  And as she is segregated into an inferior school as part of an "Americanization," program, she experiences the racism personally.  Like the children before her, she finds space for herself with her harmonica.

I love how each child's story is narrated by a different voice, and how the sound of the harmonica throughout wordlessly connects all three stories.  Each person is vibrant and full in character, and each has a uniquely touching relationship with music.  Sometimes the music plays like a soundtrack and sometimes it takes center, and it all feels very organic in the way that noise and melodies shift in and out of view in real life.  Because you get so immersed in each person's individual story, you don't realize until the end how expansive the book is--covering so many World War II themes of persecution and capturing so many different arenas of suffering.  At the end, the stories come together with ease and heart, in a way that only a children's book can.

So if you're like me and at one point thought that audiobooks are boring and hard to listen to and thought why change a reading experience that has been perfectly enjoyable with words on paper, or if you think that podcasts are enough fulfill your listening needs, or if you have a long drive coming up--this is a great introduction to audiobooks as an entirely different world of reading and listening.

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