2021 Newbery Buzz #6: Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk

We wrap up our Newbery Buzz series for this year with a discussion of Echo Mountain a historical novel set during the Great Depression. Joining us will be Pamela, a longtime friend and sometime contributor to Redeemed Reader.

Janie: Echo Mountain has reaped three starred reviews in the most prestigious journals. Its author, Lauren Wolk, won a Newbery silver medal for her first novel, Wolf Hollow, three years ago. So it’s likely this book has been under discussion ever since it was published last spring. Here’s a brief synopsis:

Ellie’s family (her parents, older sister Esther, and little brother Sam) took a severe hit when the stock market dropped and brought on the Great Depression. No one could afford her father’s fine tailoring or pay for her mother’s music lessons. With no income, the family has moved to Echo Mountain, a semi-isolated patch of ground where they can eke out a living until things get better. Ellie, with her sixth sense for animals and the natural world, is in her element. But Esther and her mother, though they work as hard as anyone, are bitter about their lot. Especially when an accident with a falling tree puts Daddy in a coma. For reasons that will become clear, the weight of the accident falls most heavily on Ellie, but she also believes she can discover some secret that will wake up her father.

While exploring farther up the mountain, she discovers “the hag,” the subject of whispered rumors. The hag is actually a woman of some education and skill named Cate. While getting to know her and her grandson Larkin, Ellie uncovers the woman’s complex history as well as her vast knowledge of natural healing and home remedies. Cate could be the answer to Ellie’s concerns about her father. But the family needs other forms of healing as well.What impressed you most about this novel, Pamela?

Pamela: Beyond Wolk’s stellar writing (I thought 12-year-old Ellie was authentically voiced, and many of the author’s descriptions luminous), I was most struck by Ellie’s selfless choice to let her family believe she’s to blame for her father’s accident, when the fault really belongs to her two siblings. She makes that choice because she believes the blame would be too a heavy a burden for Sam, who is too young, and Esther, who is already overwhelmed by the harshness of their lives away from civilization. The author makes such kindness believable as she reveals Ellie’s deep compassion for all things living and insightful observations about her family and neighbors.  She repeatedly shows a willingness to sacrifice in order to help others.

 I also was moved by the way each family member grows in sensitivity through the story.  We come to care about each one of them as they struggle to cope with their harsh situation, and my reader’s  heart jumped with hope as they began to change in significant ways.

Another aspect of the story that drew me in was how the author spotlighted truthfulness. Ellie often asks, “What is true?” as she considers the many sides of a question. 

Janie: One thing I liked was the realism. Readers be warned–there are scenes involving blood, pus, maggots and berry-sized ticks! And while Ellie has compassion for all living things, including trees and bees, she will not shrink back from using all resources to help human beings (stealing honey, for instance, to aid in healing). This strikes me as a proper sense of stewardship, I think. 

Pamela: I agree, the realism was at the same time both refreshing and cringe-producing; it made me feel that I was there, because I would certainly have been cringing at these things if they was happening to me!  Your point on her showing good stewardship is well spoken too.

Janie: I’d like to push back a little on the truthfulness theme. Throughout the book Ellie contemplates all the “else’s”–the alternatives to an assumed attitude or action or plan. Her mind is always opening to alternatives: it’s how she becomes a stronger and wiser person by the end of the book than she was at the beginning. Near the end, during a conversation with Cate, the woman asks, “Tell me what true is.” It’s a challenging statement, to which Ellie replies that she knows a million true things. “As do I,” Cate says. “And a million I can’t explain though they’re real. And quite a few I can’t believe, though they happened.” So . . . are we any closer to understanding what truth is? Or just “What is, is”? I don’t expect a philosophical or theological tract to be buried in a novel for middle-graders, but I was more confused by the talk about truth than enlightened. What am I missing?

Pamela: Yes—in spite of the nods given to the Lord as real and present (Ellie prays several times, and mentions her mother taught her not to say the Lord’s name in vain), this is not a book that will point one to the Source of all truth by name.  Ellie seems to frequently seek a wider understanding of what is true than she currently possesses; but her following through is uneven, as is common to most of us.  But she does model the seeking that goes beyond easy answers.

Janie: Fair enough. I’ve said elsewhere that fiction is not about getting answers but learning to ask the right questions. Echo Mountain seems a bit long, and a reader who likes nonstop action may find it slow in parts. But for those willing to take the time, it’s a rewarding read (and there are puppies!). Does it have a chance at Newbery gold? Check back tomorrow, when Betsy and I boldly make our predictions!

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