Review by Meghan G.
“Your fate is not yet sealed.
Even in the darkest night, a star will shine,
a bell will chime, a path will be revealed.”
In fairy tales, innocents must often venture into the shadows of the forest armed (if they’re lucky) with some breadcrumbs, a magical talisman, or a hopeful omen. And as Pam Muñoz Ryan opens her ambitious novel with a prophecy and a tale of three princesses caught in a witch’s trap, echoes of those familiar tales set the scene. But this time it’s three children of the twentieth century who must take up the quest and walk perilous paths through a world darkened by suspicion, fear, and war. Their tasks are both simple and bold: to make music, to seek truth, to find family. And of course, they have not been sent forth empty-handed …
The magic harmonica looks like any other. For the right musician at the right time, however, the harmonica sings with a wondrous voice, seeming to amplify the inner music of the player’s soul. But while the harmonica helps its musical stewards find their voices along the way, its role is ultimately one of destiny as it bides its time and follows its fated path until the promise of prophecy can finally be fulfilled.
As it passes from hand to hand, the harmonica’s journey introduces a trio of remarkable young musicians, and this is where the true magic and raw power of the novel lies: in the fierce dreams, ferocious spirits, and artistic souls of these smart, gutsy children. Each relegated to the fringes of their societies, each emboldened to fight for the kind of world he or she wants to see, these children confront the challenges they face head on. And as you read their stories, you will fall in love with the quiet strength of Friedrich, a quirky birthmarked German boy confronted with the implications of Hitler’s physical ideals; with the unwavering dedication of Mike, the elder of two orphans adrift in the bleak America of the Great Depression; and with the fiery passion of Ivy, the daughter of migrant workers fighting for the future of an interned Japanese family while facing discrimination herself.
Adding incredible depth and beauty to this powerful story, musical themes loop in and out of the novel in so many structural, symbolic, and narrative ways that I am positive I didn’t catch them all. But as they play off each other, these threads come together into a fascinating look at the way music can simultaneously express something unique about an individual’s voice and also put that voice into context with other voices to capture something essential about a specific moment in time.
And that idea strongly speaks to my takeaway from the book as a whole. In the end, the magic harmonica’s final task is not large in the scope of history, and neither are the individual acts of the characters. Each has been chosen to be in the right place at the right time to perform one act, an act that may only contribute to changing one mind or saving one life among many. But yet, I think Pam Muñoz Ryan is telling us that each small act of empathy or suspicion, sacrifice or selfishness, cowardice or bravery contributes to the broader story and just might change the world. What better conversation is there to share with our kids than that? Recommended for ages 10 and up.