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General Review

We listened to this book on Audio and really enjoyed it. The book involves a lot of music and the audio includes the music so it really enhances the experience. It is read with four voices, including a German accent. The book is told in multiple, almost unrelated parts. It begins fifty years before the war to end all wars with Otto who has recently acquired a harmonica from a gypsy, and has a magical adventure. It is unclear how but we surmise that this is the same harmonica that Friedrich finds in Germany in the time when Hitler is coming into power. (Oct. 1933)

Part One

The book assumes a general understanding of Hitler and the effects of world war. Elementary readers may not get all the nuance. Friedrich is a boy born with a large facial birthmark that is almost a disability because of the ostracization it creates. Couple that with his propensity to act upon the music he hears in his head and this makes him quite a pitiful character. His mother is dead, his sister has joined the Nazi movement and his father is sent to Dachau. Just when it seems things might be set right there is an incident causing quite an emotional scene and bringing Part One to an unresolved close as it seems that Friedrich is taken away by guards.

Part Two

In Part Two there is again a high-level theme that may go over the heads of younger readers - the concept of Mrs. Sturbridge being afraid to open her heart to the boys because, "Everyone who matters to me leaves me." This part takes us to June, 1935 in Philadelphia County, PA with two orphan brothers in a group home. It seems they will be adopted and, you guessed it, a harmonica comes into the story. Just when it seems things are going to work out, there is a hiccup, probably a misunderstanding and the story comes to an abrupt end, leaving the reader to wonder if one of the brothers is even alive.

Part Three

December, 1942, a year after Pearl Harbor, in southern California. What we surmise to be the same harmonica has now landed with a fifth grade Hispanic girl whose parents are migrant workers and whose brother is off to war. As in the first section there are racial undertones and discrimination that may be missed by younger readers. My entering fifth grader did not understand that the Lopez family were poor, migrant workers. I feel like there is a large moral question that would be good for a discussion group in this section: In Chapter 17 was Mr. Lopez correct to let Mr. Ward into the Yamamoto's house? When the section concludes, Ivy is running towards home after seeing the Western Union messenger go towards her house. Running after her is her friend Susan who has already experienced the deathly message that the boy brings.

Overall this book is a little heavy and deals with a lot of death and sad events. For quite a while many situations are left unresolved and it feels like the characters have met a very tragic end. But at the end of the book everything wraps up nicely and ends happily. Almost all of the characters wind up in the same place. As Friedrich reflects on "Porgy & Bess" it really reinforces the ties between the different parts as he says, "a lonely man with a crippled body; a bully who thought he could rule the world; an ever-present evil; the loss of a loved one to something beyond his control; and what seemed an insurmountable challenge."

Round 1 Questions

Round 2 Questions