imagesWhen my ninety year old father-in-law requested a harmonica as a birthday gift, I was surprised at his ability to play old singalong tunes he had learned in his younger days.  The notes from his harmonica seemed as magical as the one Pam Munoz Ryan uses as the focus for her children’s 9780439874021_p0_v1_s192x300book – Echo.

The story begins and ends with a fairy tale, lending a mystical quality to the lives of the three young children who play the harmonica, as it is passed on from person and place.  Ryan uses World War II as the setting, and targets children with a talent for music.  Each child also has an obstacle to overcome, with music as their savior.The book is divided into three separate tales and each section ends with a cliffhanger, until all ends well as the grown-up children come together in the end.

Years after Otto receives the enchanted harmonica, mysteriously imbued with the voices of three abandoned princesses in the forest, Freidrich finds the harmonica in the local harmonica factory in 1933 Germany. Freidrich conducts symphonies in his head, despite ridicule from others and the purple birthmark on his face. Although his sister, Elizabeth, has joined the Nazi youth group, Freidrich, his father and his uncle, resist, and are targeted for questioning.

Mike and Frankie are orphans in what could be Miss Hannigan’s horrible home for boys in 1935 Philadelphia.  Both have a talent for the piano, and are miraculously adopted by a female Daddy Warbucks character, who also happens to be a former concert pianist.  Threatened by the possibility of being sent back to the home (Auntie really wanted a girl to adopt), Mike makes a deal – if he wins a spot in the national touring harmonica orchestra, his younger brother will not be sent back to the orphanage.

Finally, Ivy Lopez is the newest owner of the harmonica.  Her story in 1942 Southern California, a year after Pearl Harbor, focuses on racism and discrimination against migrant farm laborers and Japanese Americans.  Ivy’s father is hired to oversee a farm in Orange County, whose Japanese-American owners, the Yamamotos, have been sent to an internment camp. Ivy is forced to attend a separate school but is allowed to join the after school orchestra in the main school. She finds solace in music, and passes on the harmonica to the young Yamamoto who visits his family’s old farm before going off to war.

The story follows a formula for each section, providing historical information within the context of well-rounded characters.  Although the plots are sometimes hokey, the characters redeem the message of strength and courage. When Ryan pulls all the players together in the end, the resolutions to their trials seem contrived, but the endings justify their persistence and, anyway, fairy tales should always have happy endings.

The book is a little long and one of the stories could have been omitted but the careful attention to history and prejudice is worth the read – at any age.

Three Old Movies I Want to Remember

Because I tend to forget, I post what I want to remember – a handy reference to stimulate my foggy synapses.  From friends who know my penchant for beautiful scenery, period costuming, and thoughtful themes, three movies distracted me from books recently.  I would watch them again – and am noting them here so I can remember.  Have you watched any of them?

Songcatcher – When Dr. Lily McTeer is denied tenure (probably because she is a woman) at an elite East Coast university in the early 1900s, she quits.  Joining her sister at a remote mountain school, she discovers the local culture and the troubadour music that has been passed down through generations.  Determined to preserve the music, she begins to record and write the music into a songbook, but the forces of evil – a mining company – threaten.  Beautiful music, beautiful scenery, and beautiful Aidan Quinn.

Summer Hours – a.k.a. L’heurre d’ete – English subtitles do not distract from this closely woven examination of generations and inheritance. When Helene dies and leaves the house in the French countryside full of valuable art to her three children, they must decide whether to preserve the house, sell, or donate to the Musée d’Orsay.  Memories, secrets, and some sibling rivalry cloud the decision, and offer a perspective on accumulating “stuff.”  Beautiful scenery and Juliette Binoche as a blond.

Cousin Bette -BBC drama based on the novel by Honoré de Balzac.   If you are missing Downton Abbey, this mini-series of “lust, greed, and revenge in  nineteenth century Paris” will sustain you until the new Abbey appears again in January.  Very young Helen Mirren – though not Bette – steals the show.

Just Kids – Patti Smith

Sometime in the seventies, when I was asleep, Patti Smith made history with her punk rock and Robert Maplethorpe captured the world with his raw, controversial art.  I missed it, and so I read Patti Smith’s memoir Just Kids, hoping to find out why her winning the National Book Award should be so strange.

In a quiet poetic voice Patti Smith, the “godmother of punk,”  recalls her childhood – a quiet sickly girl who loved to read…

“I reflected on the fact that no matter how good I aspired to be, I was never going to achieve perfection.”

And her life with Robert who “contained, even at an early age, a stirring and the desire to stir…” –  before they were both famous.

As I read Smith’s thoughts, it was not always easy to be there with her in New York City, and I could not help thinking how choices make a life.  It was amazing she survived those early years; Robert did not.   How she remembers so much – more than enough for a memoir – may be due to the constant trauma in her life, sprinkled with the “greats” she met – Allen Ginsberg, Janis Joplin, Andy Warhol, William Burroughs, her relationship with Sam Shephard…

Just Kids is cathartic for the writer; voyeuristic for the reader – and a eulogy to Robert Maplethorpe.

Robert and I had explored the frontier of our work and created space for each other.

I couldn’t always look too closely, sometimes skimming over the hustling and hedonism, but now I know why the National Book Foundation committee awarded Patti Smith.

Body and Soul

Although I’ve forgotten most of the story, but remember it was among my favorite reads – Frank Conroy’s Body and Soul.

Conroy led the prestigious Writer’s Workshop at the University of Iowa and wrote his only novel about a poor boy who grows up to be a famous pianist and composer.  I’d read it again.

Today, I came across a review in the New York Times that mentions Conroy as mentor to an obscure writer, Tom Grimes, author of Mentor: A Memoir.

Columnist Dwight Garner cautions…

“Don’t give this forthright and bewildered book to the would-be writer in your life. It

might make him or her climb a tall tree and leap from it.”

Grimes could be a failed author with talent recognized only by Conroy and lost in the mires of publishing house editors –  or more likely just someone trying to capitalize on  Conroy’s name and talent.  The memoir seems to be more about poor Grimes than brilliant Conroy, who died in 2005.

After checking out Grimes’ novels –  Amazon lets you “look inside” – I’ll probably go back to read Body and Soul again instead.