Echo, Nina’s Take
After our earlier discussion of ECHO, I’m sure there were some audible groans when Jonathan and I revealed our shortlist. Much of the previous discussion was around the story structure and manipulation of the reader. I think we all recognize “manipulation” as something inherent to novel writing, it’s just that many readers prefer not to clearly see the hand in it. So, I will reiterate something I said about audience, and ask you all to consider a fairly young readership, even ages 8-10, for this book. Like THE TALE OF DESPEREAUX, in which familiar folklore conventions and a theme as basic as “light overcomes dark” seem overindulged and grossly obvious to me as an adult reader, I have to admit they work spot-on for a young readership. Here, too, I think the bookend fairytale-like story, the “psych” cliffhangers and easy resolutions, the repeated imagery and metaphors (to which an adult reader might say “uh, yes, I got this the first time”) work exactly as deliberated, making this work wonderfully as an epic introduction to WW2, and overarching metaphor for music as empathy. Can I imagine this done with a little more subtlety? Sure. But I do think the payoff of the final scene, for the intended reader, is amazing, and distinguished.
There were a couple of things I was looking for on this re-reading, besides the manipulation issue, in response to other comments. Misti commented that she recalled passages in which conversations stuck out for passing information along to the reader. This does generally rile me, and I noted it glaringly on p.85 (“Let’s not disparage and instrument that goes back to the ancient Chinese sheng.”). Later, it came up starting on p.216 when Frankie asks Mike to “tell me the story again” about their family, but I thought it worked here, allowing Ryan to develop background character for the two boys. They are probably more instances of this, but I sense I simply went with Ryan’s tone and didn’t notice. I do feel like her tone always reminds us we are listening to someone tell us a story. I don’t feel this prose to be as “real-you-are-there” as, say, Stead’s or Schlitz’s. But I feel it works within the story she’s set out to tell.
The other thing I was looking for was the issue of “appropriation without credit” of the blues music in the middle section, as Alys noted. When she brought this up, I realized it hadn’t occurred to me in my first reading, though I’d noted the underplaying of Mr. and Mrs. Potter as African-American, since discrimination was a clear theme in this book. So on my re-read, I looked for passages about African-Americans and about the blues playing in general, and here’s what I noticed.
In the first main section, Friderich’s sister condemns the music of the harmonica: p.86 “I mean Negro music. Jazz. It’s considered degenerate.” This is only a passing comment, but it leads importantly to their father’s response, which is in effect Ryan’s entire premise for the novel, which I’d missed as such on first read since it comes so early:
“Music does not have a race or a disposition! …Every instrument has a voice that contributes. Music is a universal language. A universal religion of sorts. Certainly it’s my religion. Music surpasses all distinctions between people.” (p.86)
In the middle section, Mr. and Mrs. Potter are the presumably African-American groundskeeper and housekeeper in Philadelphia. I say “presumably” because it’s never noted explicitly, though Mike notes their skin and hair color: “A dark-skinned man” p.259 and p.260 “Her brown skin was the same color as her sleeked-back hair.” I had noted this, on first reading. It feels a little out of character for Mike not to label them by race, as I imagine most White boys his age and time would, but I imagine Ryan was deliberately asking readers to look past race, as she does through the novel.
Mike hears the blues for the first time on p.292-3:
“Mr. Potter could make the harmonica sound like a train on a track, a baby crying, or rain falling in the wind. …The sound seemed to transport him [Mike] to another place and time. Someplace ancient and earthy. The beat started and stopped, questioned and answered.”
Mr. Potter tells him it’s “Called the blues. …Ever heard someone say they’re feeling blue? Means sad or they got the melancholies about life. So blues music is about all the trials and tribulations people got in their hearts from living. It’s about what folks want but don’t have. Blues is a song begging for its life. …the songs are full of something else too, …No matter how much you don’t have, there’s always so much more of life to be had. So, no matter how much sadness is in a song, there’s equal ‘mount of maybe-things’ll-get-better-someday-soon.”
“Can you make any song the blues?” asked Mike.
“Not always. But you can make most sound blues-y….Means you can give ‘most any song the flavor of the blues.”
Here, I noticed that again Ryan deliberately leaves out any mention of blues’ connection to emancipated African-American communities, from which everything Mr. Potter attributes to the genre originates. Again, I have to assume this is based in Ryan’s thesis to make music a “universal language” that “surpasses all distinctions between people.”
On p.338, it is Mrs. Sturbridge who suggests that Mike uses the blues in his arrangement, though this goes without notice or comment; and on p.347 he plays it in his audition: “The second verse was the blues version… It wasn’t hard for Mike to drop into the music and testify to the journey he’d been on.”
This was the passage that made me finally cringe, as “testifying to a journey,” through blues, has a very obvious reference to the middle passage and subsequent journey from slavery to emancipation. To not note this, but use it, strikes me as appropriation without credit, and something likely lost on many readers of the age I’ve pictured for this book.
There were just a couple of other places where I noticed Ryan repeating what I noted in the passages above. When Ivy’s is on the school bus for the first time, she (somewhat implausibly) doesn’t notice the division by skin color until the very end: “Ivy finally noticed that all the students on the bus and milling in front of the school looked the same: brown-eyed, dark-haired, and olive-skinned, like her.” p.446-7. Why call out skin, eye, hair attributes, rather than the racial ones? Especially since she notes that this was, specifically, racial profiling: on p.471 she points out that the Filipino kids go to the main school. Surely she would be familiar with being racially profiled? I assume, once again, Ryan’s intention that made Mike look past race, but here, it is even harder to swallow.
Finally, in the wrap up scene, on p. 556 Friederich conducts Porgy & Bess, identifying with its message. This is a small note, but worth pointing out for its consistency. Gershwin’s opera is still highly acclaimed and hotly debated for the questions it raises about appropriation of African-American’s story and music, and Gershwin is perhaps the best example of a genius musician, popular to the dominant culture, who owes it to Ragtime and the blues. I note, simply, the lack of note.
When I add this all up…it doesn’t sit great. I see, I believe, what Ryan is trying to do with her story, using music to push against discrimination, being very deliberate in how she makes her characters see each other, in order to ask readers to look past race. She pulls off so much that works well in this regard, especially in Ivy’s chapter. In fact, I could possibly buy the argument that the awkwardness of the scene on the bus that I noted serves a purpose in drawing young readers’ attention to race as an arbitrary social convention based in maintaining power. I also appreciate what Ryan does do with Mr. and Mrs. Potter as characters…very little, it’s true, but their life outside of their jobs is noted, which is a rarity in many children’s books in which African-American housekeeper/groundkeepers are side-characters. (They get to retire! Whew.) Yet, in establishing her consistent tone that drives home her theme so well…the skirting of the African-American contribution to the music that plays a significant part in the story ultimately seems to smart, rather than contribute. “Music does not have a race or disposition!” asserted Friederich’s father in defense of “Negro music.” Was he actually defending it?
How much does this flaw tip this book for me? I’m not sure yet. I’d like to discuss it, and sit with it. This is a book whose award-worthiness has so far stood up to it’s flaws, and which I’ve appreciated as much for that as for anything else.
I should point that I am still reading (and quoting) from an ARC, and don’t note any author’s notes beyond the acknowledgments. I also want to note that I wrote the Horn Book review for ECHO, at which point I’d clearly picked up on none of this. I point this out because I think it’s an example of how our readings of books can develop more the more we re-read and discuss, and how an award-discussion of a book can go beyond the reading of individual reviewers.
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About Nina Lindsay
Nina Lindsay is the Children's Services Coordinator at the Oakland Public Library, CA. She chaired the 2008 Newbery Committee, and served on the 2004 and 1998 committees. You can reach her at firstname.lastname@example.org
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