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Review of the Day: Echo Mountain by Lauren Wolk

Echo Mountain
By Lauren Wolk
Dutton (an imprint of Penguin Random House)
ISBN: 978-0-525-55556-8
Ages 9-12
On shelves April 21st

Sometimes we reviewers talk about “nostalgia”. How it plays a role in the books we review and the way we interpret those titles. I’ve been thinking a lot about that word lately. Seems it only really comes up in conversation when you’re talking about works of fiction set in the past. Sometimes such books romanticize history or historical moments. They may have different reasons for doing so, but in the end there’s a kind of yearning worked into the fabric of the novel for a time that is not the present. With author Lauren Wolk, it’s different. It’s not that her books aren’t beautiful and it’s not that they don’t bring a specific historical moment in the past to life. More, when I read a book by Wolk, what I yearn for isn’t history. I yearn for nature. Nobody conjures up the feeling of pine needles under your bare feet or that wind that seeps into your bones quite like she does. In the past I’ve approached her books the same way you’d approach a sleeping panther. You have no idea what to expect when you pick one up. But her latest Echo Mountain trades in that sense of anxiety, exchanging it for mere high tension. Set in a Depression-era Maine, it’s about the stories other people tell us about ourselves, the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves, and why sometimes kids are the ones that have all the answers.

“I had work to do. Honey to harvest. A hag to save. A father to save. And more besides.” Maine. 1934. Ellie was just a young child when the stock market crashed. Next thing she knew, her family was pulling up roots and headed to Echo Mountain. With hardly anything more than the shirts on their backs, the family of five settles into the wilderness where Ellie finds a true home. Of course, that was before the accident that put her father in a coma, unable to provide for his family, and the blame for it at her feet. Since that time Ellie has been content to sit back and let her mother and older sister tend to him. That is, until takes it into her head that enough is enough. There’s a father to wake, there are mysterious tiny wooden carvings cropping up everywhere Ellie looks, there’s a hag on the mountain that needs help, and it’s all so much more than just one girl can handle. Still, handle it, she will, because nobody knows the mountain, its secrets and its cures, better than Ellie.

You do not pick up a Lauren Wolk book, looking for fluff. This is the woman that scared the socks off of me with her pretty blonde psychopath in Wolf Hollow, to say nothing of the villain of Beyond the Bright Sea. In sharp contrast, Echo Mountain is strangely bereft of its own baddie. Nature is both friend and foe. Circumstances, bad luck, and life itself get their kicks in, but a good old-fashioned human antagonist isn’t waiting in the wings. What does that leave us? Wolk’s beautiful writing. Not merely words and sentences (those are consistently surprising, and I’ll say more about them in a moment) but smaller details, like how the book plays with foreshadowing. I get a bit tired of books that end chapters with sentences like, “It would be the last time I’d ever see him again.” How much more interesting to have lines like, “The morning began as any morning might – a matter of yawns, squinting at the weather, wobbling on the tightrope between yesterday and tomorrow – but the day to come would be the longest and most interesting of my life.” I think this is a good example of the type of foreshadowing that comes at the beginning of a paragraph rather than the end. Wolk applies it periodically and with such a light hand that it feels novel every time.

Wolk’s first book, Wolf Hollow was an adult novel adapted for a child audience. As such, when I read her, I find myself reading not with a child’s eye but a librarian’s. In this particular book I’ve encountered something that happens only because I’m an adult reader of children’s books and not a child reader of them. Early in Echo Mountain Ellie decides that her father, in his coma, will never wake up if people just treat him sweet and sing him lullabies. Surely he’ll respond to a sharper stimulus, like the fear of his eldest daughter in peril or drinks made of the mountain’s bounty. Essentially, Ellie is still a child and these are the kind of experiments to which children are rather prone. Just a half a step away from mud pies, really. As an adult, I was terrified, not sure how far she’d go. After all, children’s conjurings can be mighty and terrible, particularly when they’re carrying a burden they cannot name. Had I read this book as a kid, I think I would have been completely on board with Ellie’s internal logic. That’s the problem with growing up. Threats loom larger, particularly when concerning children.

Of course, Ellie’s wild plan eventually made me wonder how reliable she is as the book’s narrator. Could Wolk be playing with the reader, causing them to doubt her intentions? She says she only puts a snake in the bedroom with her comatose father because she thinks her sister’s true scream will wake him up, but this is the sister that’s been taking little stabs and jabs at Ellie all book. Sometimes it seems Ellie’s cures serve doubly as revenge. Is she even being honest with herself about the reasons she does what she does?

Sometimes I wonder whom Wolk reads. What are her primary influences? I only wonder because sometimes in her writing there are echoes (forgive the pun) of other titles. There is a moment in the book when you’ve the distinct feeling that everything is getting very Boo Radley-ish. Mysterious carvings from a shy carver? That’s straight up Harper Lee, that is. I feel like Wolk’s doing that on purpose, to a certain extent. The carver isn’t a Boo, but there are echoes of Boo in there. Wolk doesn’t really owe her tone or feel to anyone specific, though. Oh! That reminds me! Remember when I mentioned how brilliant individual lines of this book sometimes sound? Well get a load of these little gems I plucked out of the narrative:

– “And every long, gray rain that found its way into our sad tent reminded them of how we had lost our house. Sold nearly everything we owned. Took what little was left. And went looking for a way to survive until the world tipped back to well.”

– “Before I left the room, I kissed my father on his head. One the scar there. It felt like a map against my lips. So I followed it.”

– “Then I left the shed and walked up the path and, after a bit, into the woods, through a hemlock grove so full of shadows that almost nothing grew between the trunks of the old trees, the deep layer of dead needles underfoot like the soft coat of a great, sprawling animal that didn’t mind the weight of me.”

– “My mother looked at me over her shoulder. I could see her regret, but something else, too. The same thing I saw on her face when any wild thing came too close to the cabin.”

– “For a long time, I’d thought that people simply were who they were and became who they became. But I didn’t think that anymore.”

– “She was a small woman, which should have made me feel better, but she was like the centipedes that sometimes raced in a frenzy across the cabin floor, their legs like brittle hair, so fast and shivery that I’d leap in terror at the sight of them.”

– “I turned back to my father. I hated the way his skin pulled hard across the bones of his face, as if someone were making him into a drum. As if he were hollow. As if someone was supposed to hit him to make any music at all.”

Okay okay. So it’s beautiful, sure. Extremely well written and heartfelt. Lots of good moments. So here’s the million-dollar question, sweetheart. How you gonna sell this to the average kid? For the historical fiction lovers, the ones that like The Evolution of Calpurnia Tate, they’ll probably take one glance at the cover and whip it out of your hands, leaving a little poofy cloud like you’d see in Warner Brothers cartoon. But the rest of them? How you gonna sell it? After all, it’s clocking in at a hefty 368 pages and it is NOT a verse novel. The answer may come thanks to good old-fashioned gross out tactics. Because lying in wait in this story is some seriously icky stuff. You’re gonna see honey used in ways you’ve never seen honey used before. Got a problem with maggots? Well get used to them, babykins, because they’ve got a job to do and by gum they’re gonna do it. As I see it, this doesn’t look on its outside like a book where a kid comes THIS close to branding an old lady with a heated iron, so make it clear that sleepy and nappy this book is not.

There’s a safety to Echo Mountain that was missing from Wolk’s previous books. I’m still making up my mind about whether or not that’s a good or bad thing. It’s more than just the lack of a human villain. Reading this book felt so easy and natural. The drive to continue wasn’t based on anything but pleasure in the writing itself. There’s pleasure too to be found in finding yourself in the head of a uniquely capable young woman. The kind unafraid to provide for not just her own family but other people who need her as well. There’s a loneliness to the kind of life Ellie leads, but the trade off is that she feels truly free. Hand this to the kid that yearns for that freedom. For wide-open spaces and mysterious figures hiding in the shadows and snot nosed brothers and lots and lots of puppies. Hand it to someone who needs their own mountain. Even if it’s just a literary one.

On shelves April 21st.

Source: Galley from publisher for review.

Notes on a Title: I have a working theory that the true title of this book was supposed to be “No More Lullabies” but that at some point in the process it got shaved and dulled down to the innocuous “Echo Mountain”. I know that early in the book Ellie says that she’s an “echo-girl”, which is to say she feels what other animals and creatures around her are feeling. It’s a nice theme, but a less powerful one than the idea that sunshine and rainbows aren’t going to bring back to you what you lost. As such, when I rule the world I will be renaming this book with the first title. It just fits better.

About Elizabeth Bird

Elizabeth Bird is currently the Collection Development Manager of the Evanston Public Library system and a former Materials Specialist for New York Public Library. She has served on Newbery, written for Horn Book, and has done other lovely little things that she'd love to tell you about but that she's sure you'd find more interesting to hear of in person. Her opinions are her own and do not reflect those of EPL, SLJ, or any of the other acronyms you might be able to name. Follow her on Twitter: @fuseeight.