This isn’t a typical Newbery Honor book. (Yet it won that honor for 2016.) For one thing, it’s much longer than most Newbery books, finishing out at nearly 600 pages. For another thing, it doesn’t fit easily into a single genre. At first, I thought it was going to be a magical realism novel. The frame story, which we only encounter at the very beginning and the very end of the book, reads like a fairy tale —with a boy lost in the dark Germanic woods meeting with three magical nymph-like ladies who give him a prophecy. But after the first few pages, the narrative transitions to well-grounded historical fiction—three different historical fiction vignettes in fact— loosely tied together by strains of music from a very special harmonica.
The three vignettes are fairly different from one another. The first features a boy in Germany in the early 1930s, dealing with the fact that his older sister is embracing Hitlerism even as he himself is faced with possible sterilization due to past medical issues. The second story follows an orphaned boy and his brother in Depression-era America, as they interact with a wealthy heiress who is considering adoption. The third vignette focuses on a Hispanic girl growing up in a migrant working family in 1940s California, dealing with the wartime injustices towards her Japanese-American neighbors. All three stories interact with real social and historical injustices that touched the daily lives of the three young people.
The thread that links each of these vignettes is a harmonica—a magical harmonica if we are to take the fairy-tale-esque frame story literally. Each of the three main characters find him or herself inspired and comforted by the music of this harmonica, and the fact that they are musical plays a unique part in each of their stories. The way Ms. Ryan describes the experience of playing and performing music is quite compelling. She evokes the emotions of many different aspects of playing music—improvising, practicing, performing, and just fiddling around on an instrument.
All three of the stories were moving and compelling, and they joined together to make a rich novel. But the vignette that stood out the most to me personally was that of Friedrich, the young boy growing up in Nazi Germany. I particularly appreciated Friedrich because he was born with a large birthmark on his face, and has to come to grips with how to stand up and face the world rather than trying to hide his physical imperfection – particularly in a society so fixated upon “physical perfection.”
I live with physical scars that are the result of a bout of bacterial meningitis that I had as a child, so stories that deal with these issues are very meaningful to me personally. As a child, I don’t remember ever reading a book whose main character had physical scarring. This fact never really occurred to me at the time, yet I think reading a story like Friedrich’s might have been helpful to me.
Too often in literature and movies, physical imperfection and scarring are used as dehumanizing characteristics. I recently re-watched Star Wars: Revenge of the Sith and was struck with how physical scarring is used to visually represent both the Emperor and Darth Vader’s transformation toward evil. Think of how much more human (and less villainous) both of those characters would seem in that movie without their physical scarring. There’s something very beautiful and important about seeing sympathetic characters like Friedrich in our literature and movies. Those of us with scars and physical imperfections should have characters to relate to, who understand what it is like to get stares while walking down the street, or who have to think about what they will wear in relation to how much of their physical scarring they want to be visible. It should not be the case that the only fictional characters we see with scars are pirates or outlaws or leaders of evil galactic empires. We need more characters like Friedrich.
All in all, I found this to be a very compelling read. It was unusual in its format and lack of adherence to a single genre, yet each of the main characters came very much alive for me. The worlds opened up by the three different historical vignettes felt real and immediate, and there was a sense of urgency to the social injustices that were pointed out in each story. While the size may be intimidating to some middle grade readers, the journey is worth it in order to know these wonderful characters and enter into these unique moments in history.