I haven’t read enough new books in 2021 to make a serious Newbery prediction–and yet… I’m going to anyway. Lauren Wolk’s Echo Mountain is beautiful and gorgeous and good, and it deserves all the shiny medals.
I know–there have been a lot of excellent books published in 2020. Even having read fewer of them, I was impressed with this year’s calibre. But when I looked back on my year’s reading, Echo Mountain kept standing out.
Before I get to the review proper, let me just share a weird coincidence. I have absolutely no knowledge go Lauren Work spying on me, yet this is a description from her story:
“On one wall: shelves of books in all colors and sizes, like the keys of a new instrument I wanted badly to play… Hanging from the roof: dozens of faded bouquets dangling like an upside-down garden… And there was a workbench and a back wall hung all over with tools that my father would have cried to see. Beautiful tools of all kinds, as if someone had made wonderful things here.”
And here (Exhibits B, C, and D) are a few photos of my house:
So…I may be biased. But also… maybe Lauren Work is destined to be my good friend in the future when she realizes we have pretty darn similar tastes in what makes life interesting. 🙂 Lauren, if you ever read this, consider yourself invited over. You can hang out in Mark’s shop and I’ll brew you up a cup of lemon balm and lavender tea.
Anyway…enough of that tangent. Have I already convinced you that Lauren Work is an excellent writer and that her setting is pretty great? Good. I’ll move on to the rest of the story now.
A few years ago, my oldest daughter told me if she could go back in time and live in any time period, it would be… the Great Depression. Which 1) made me realize however many presents I’d bought for that kid were obviously too many and she should get flour sacks from then on; and 2) made me seek out excellent historical novels set in the 30’s. Because, yes, there’s something absolutely fascinating in reading about other people going through hard times.
And then…you get a year that’s going to go down in history as, well, a hard time. And suddenly reading books set in similarly difficult windows of the timeline of history seems even more important. Lauren Wolk couldn’t have known how hard 2020 would be when she wrote Echo Mountain, but somehow she wrote a story that we all needed.
Here’s a quick summary from the publisher:
“After the financial crash, Ellie and her family have lost nearly everything–including their home in town. They have started over, carving out a new life in the unforgiving terrain of Echo Mountain. Though her sister Esther, especially, resents everything about the mountain, Ellie has found more freedom, a new strength, and a love of the natural world that now surrounds them. But there is little joy, even for Ellie, as they all struggle with the sorrow and aftermath of an accident that left her father in a coma. An accident for which Ellie has accepted the unearned weight of blame.
“Urgent for a cure to bring her father back, Ellie is determined to try anything. Following her heart, and the lead of a scruffy mutt, Ellie will make her way to the top of the mountain, in search of the healing secrets of a woman known only as “the hag.” But the mountain still has many untold stories left to reveal to Ellie, as she finds her way forward among a complex constellation of strong women spanning generations.”
Here’s what I love about this story, a million and a half times over: Ellie is a tremendous character. She makes a heart-wrenching decision at the beginning of the story to take the blame for an accident she didn’t cause–even though it makes her mother and sister resent her and others pity her–because she’d rather be resented than cause others to feel guilt. And this…just stunned me. As a person, I’m inspired by this character’s strength and courage. As a writer, I’m sitting there, staring at the page, wondering, “HOW ON EARTH DID THIS WRITER PULL THIS OFF?!” Because Ellie is no Pollyanna or Little Lord Fauntleroy. She’s a real, relatable girl, who does real, relatable things. And yet her choices are saintly. She’s one of the best examples I can think of in fiction of how very normal people can do very extraordinary, holy things. If you need a literary mentor to get you through the rest of a hard winter, go find this book as quickly as you can.
To find more Marvelous Middle Grade Monday recommendations, check out Greg’s blog: https://gpattridge.com/author/gpattridge/