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Heavy Medal: A Mock Newbery Blog
Inside Heavy Medal

Heavy Medal Mock Newbery Finalist: ECHO MOUNTAIN by Lauren Wolk

Introduced by Heavy Medal Award Committee member Carrie Bruner

Lauren Wolk’s ability to capture the beauty of nature through her words and her ability to clearly portray strong female characters made the 2017 Newbery Honor winning Wolf Hollow such a pleasure to read. Those abilities carry through to her newest book, ECHO MOUNTAIN.

            With the opening line, “The first person I saved was a dog”, we are introduced to twelve year old Ellie, the middle child in a family of three. A remarkable girl who is forced to move to the mountains of Maine during the Great Depression, the book follows Ellie and her family as they face the loneliness of mountain living and the difficulties that this move brings.

Wolk is masterful at delineating the characters in her story, especially when it comes to showing the different ways that grief expresses itself.  With Ellie, it is how she throws herself into trapping, fishing, and foraging. Despite the determination and bravery that Ellie shows with these skills, we still deeply feel her grief at no longer having that shared love of the outdoors with her father, and for potentially being the cause of his coma. The grief she feels is apparent with the increasingly desperate steps she takes to wake her father from his coma. We feel Ellie’s mother’s grief at losing the support system of her husband and her self-worth with losing her teaching job; and even with Esther, Ellie’s older sister, we see that she cannot really afford to show grief because of the responsibilities that come with being the oldest. And, with Cate, we deeply feel her despair at the loss of her son, and we sympathize with the desire to run away from our past when we are so deeply scarred.

Despite this being a middle grade novel, there is some imagery that may be difficult for some readers, especially the rabbit skinning, the clobbering of the fish, and the description of Cate’s maggot covered wound. However, despite that, I feel that those descriptions are appropriate to correctly convey what life was like during this time. The isolation of the mountain and the poverty necessitated these actions because there were no other means of survival at this time in history. Furthermore, Wolk is explicit in detailing the respect that Ellie and Cate had for the animals they hunted, and the devastation that Ellie felt in taking the last of the honey from the hive to help heal Cate.

Although there are other middle grade novels set during the Great Depression, including award winners like ESPERANZA RISING by Pam Muñoz Ryan, and MOON OVER MANIFEST by Clare Vanderpool, I am hard-pressed to think of one that moves its setting to the mountains during this time in American history. Furthermore, Maine is an unusual setting for middle grade novels as is, with CHARLOTTE’S WEB being the only title that pops into my head.

ECHO MOUNTAIN is a poetically written novel that highlights the struggles the characters faced during the Great Depression and forges a deep emotional connection to the characters with the reader. Lauren Wolk has again proved herself worthy of the Newbery Honor she previously received.

Heavy Medal Award Committee members and others are now invited to discuss this book further in the Comments section below. Please start with positive observations first; stick to positives until at least three comments have been posted or we reach 1:00 pm EST (10:00 am PST).

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Steven Engelfried About Steven Engelfried

Steven Engelfried is the Library Services Manager at the Wilsonville Public Library in Oregon. He served on the 2010 Newbery committee, chaired the 2013 Newbery Committee, and also served on the 2002 Caldecott committee. You can reach him at sengelfried@yahoo.com.

Comments

  1. Rachel Jamieson says:

    Wolk did a wonderful job with the setting of this book. I found myself wanting to be with the families in the mountains, despite their lives being so harsh.

  2. Emily Mroczek says:

    I’m with you on the excellent character development Carrie. I really appreciated how she acknowledged how certain events changed the characters (Cate, Keavy, Esther etc) one of my favorite lines was when Ellies mom said you don’t necessarily go back to who you were before but who you are next!

  3. This title was one of the ones I hadn’t yet read though I’ve had an ARC since February! From the moment I began it, however, I knew it was going to rocket to the tope of my list of contenders. It is beautifully, brilliantly written, with sentences that shine in completely unexpected yet utterly perfect ways. Here’s just one example from the dozens I marked:
    “But the closer we got to the cabin, the more I was able to see what the bear saw in the eye of the purple aster, what the crow saw from her topmost nest, what any untamed creature knew from the moment it first opened its eyes: that life is a matter of moments, strung together like rain. To try to touch just one drop at a time, to try to count them or order them or reckon their worth — each by each — was impossible.
    To stand in the rain was the thing. To be in it.”

    Regarding the historical/physical setting: though the Depression certainly drove them to the mountains, what I appreciated about the story is the way Ellie saw that new life as a discovery not merely something hard they were forced into. Wolk makes the distinction clear between Esther and their mother, who see this season as something to endure, and Ellie and Cate who see this type of living as a gift, one to return to again and again.

  4. Rox Anne Close says:

    Lauren Wolk’s storytelling had me spellbound. The plot is well woven and the storyline is compelling. She tackled difficult subjects of the depression, living in poverty, tragic family accident, bearing hardship, dealing with blame, complicated family relationships, primitive medicine and intermingles that with the love of dogs, music and the love of nature.

    The characters are complex, especially Ellie, who is smart, strong, resourceful in nature, persistent in helping her father, loving, and full of courage to find her own true self as she deals with guilt and blame. I found myself cheering fiercely for Ellie throughout the book.

    The author paints vivid descriptive pictures of character and uses strong metaphors and similes to describe settings such as: “The sun was slipping down the far side of the day, and the shadows were slowing unspooling like black ribbons across the yard.” The gardener in me loved the quote: “There aren’t many hurts that a sky meadow full of clean white blossoms can’t make at least a little better”. The animal lover in me loved the description of Ellie rolling in the hay with her dogs; “Not even when I lay among them and they belly-crawled up to my warmth and butted me with their hard little heads…curling against my pulse and sighing as if he’d found what he was looking for.”

    Lauren Wolk does not write fluff, this book is not for the faint of heart. The medical details are a bit squeamish, especially healing with honey and maggots, but her writing is so descriptive that I felt like I was running free in the woods with Ellie, crying with Ellie when her family blamed her for her father’s accident, sharing her curiosity and hurt when she was surviving in nature, and learning a lot about natural healing methods. This is a book that remained a long time with me, and I think is a strong contender for the Newbery award.

  5. Amanda Bishop says:

    I absolutely loved this book. I thought Wolk brought her characters and the setting to life so vividly in this novel. While the book focuses primarily on the main character, Ellie, the other characters shine through so brilliantly. I found myself wanting to know more about them and their lives after the conclusion of the book. I think young readers will connect deeply with the motivations of Ellie and the feelings she has throughout the book. Grief is so complex at that age and particularly when young Ellie believes that she holds some responsibility for what happened to her father and how she must be the strong one, despite being so young. This book is wholly deserving of the Newbery and I think it will be one of those books children will look back on as a favorite from their childhood.

  6. More than anything else, I think Echo Mountain gives readers things to think about, which is not a bad thing. For example: what good is blaming people (especially if you don’t know the full story? Can you ever actually know the full story? Ester thinks she does, but she is wrong, for example). Can you only be one thing, and how much can you change and still be yourself? What parts of your former self/life are worth holding onto?

    Some of the dubious medical stuff Ellie does with her father did make me squirm, I’ll admit. I could see a desperate child trying some desperate things of their own and it not going as well. I found that part of the story to be rather far-fetched. I also felt that, at times, Ellie’s voice was older than her age, especially when she was waxing philosophical, but I don’t know that child readers would think so. Overall, though, these are fairly minor detractions to a very good book.

    • To clarify, the part the makes me squirm is the idea of some modern child reading this and thinking something like, “Oh, I can cure Mom’s cancer/sister’s diabetes/etc., with this magical good-thought potion,” and then actually doing something harmful instead by accident. What Ellie does herself is fundamentally harmless, and I have no problem with it. I just have an over-active imagination when it comes to kids getting into medication and such.

  7. Julie Corsaro says:

    In addition to the strengths already mentioned around writing style, setting and character development, I think this was an expertly paced novel; it was all of a piece in a way that I think another strong historical fiction contender, SHOW ME A SIGN, is not. As for the grosser aspects around healing, I wasn’t put off by them and think most kids won’t be either as many of them like the icky and the yucky.

    • Leonard Kim says:

      Julie, it’s interesting you have that reaction. I liked the book a lot and I thought style, setting, and character were all strengths too, but I remember having some issues with pacing. To pick on one thing in particular, I felt a disharmony between the length of the book and Wolk’s generally expansive prose vs. what felt like many, relatively short chapters that ended too similarly: as if Wolk felt pressure to remember she was writing for kids and thus needed these too frequent cliffhangers, or foreshadowings, or just something snappy so as not to demand attention for too long. And though one could argue that part of the Newbery is considering child abilities, I don’t think it counts when such measures arguably detract from the book’s literary excellence.

      • Julie Corsaro says:

        Yes, the book is hefty, but for what’s there, I like the pacing. As (I think) I’ve brought up during earlier discussions on HM, “slow” has been attached to it by others. The use of foreshadowing has also had its critics (maybe, that’s your observation Leonard), but I thought it was just right (and kept me turning the pages). I do think the graphic nature of parts of the story will engage a lot of young readers, as will the dogs. But I don’t imagine it’s a book for everyone, although it does have a classic feel. It’s a deep, sustained dive.

        The events of 2020 with their accompanying subtractions and isolation made ECHO MOUNTAIN feel particularly pertinent this year. But it’s vital enough in setting, character, plot, style, and theme(s) to resonate in any year. And there were additions to Ellie’s life, too, especially around relationships and her burgeoning sense of self

  8. Courtney Hague says:

    Excellent introduction, Carrie. I completely agree that the characters in this book really shine. I love what Amanda said above about wanting to know more about all the characters. I definitely felt like all of the characters were fully realized and could easily have been our protagonist in this story. But I really love Ellie. I think that her dabbling in pseudo-medicine to try to heal her father was very realistic and I think child readers would relate.

    The beautiful writing in this book is what really caught my attention though. I had started reading this during the beginnings of the Covid lockdowns and the slow pacing at the beginning didn’t work for me. That is a critique of me as a reader though and not this book. However, when I came back to it this fall, the beautiful writing really pulled me in. Here is just one example:
    “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 one of the longest and most interesting of my life” (71)

  9. Meredith Burton says:

    Echo Mountain is one of the most vivid and complex reads of 2020. I did not find Ellie’s unorthodosx methods of trying to heal her father off-putting or cringe-worthy. I found those methods fascinating. The curiosity of a child and their willingness to try different things is what makes Ellie such a compelling character. I will never look at honey the same way again, either.
    The strongest aspects of this book to me were the characters’ complexities and the rich, evocative setting. The most vivid scene was when Ellie gathers honey and is able to empathize with the bees who are being robbed. You feel the bee’s desperation as they try to protect their hive.
    I felt most empathetic to Ellie’s mother and to Esther. While I fear most people will dislike Esther, I appreciated Wolk’s decision to examine the family’s forced move to the mountains from such complex angles. I also thought the decision for the mother to stop playing her mandolin until the climax was particularly vivid and strong. Samuel was a delight and brought well-needed humor to such a heavy story. Wolk’s decision to have no utter villain like she does in Wolf Hollow and Beyond the Bright Sea was another strength that makes this title a strong contender. Each character is dealing with hardship in their own unique way, and none of them are perfect or irredeemable individuals.

    I did have a similar thought about pacing as did Mr. Kim. I felt the pacing was a bit slow in places. There were very few instances of this fact, but I did feel the middle portion of the novel could have been trimmed just a fraction. I also was certain that Kate was going to die as Wolk seems to prepare the reader for this fact when Kate tells Larkin and Captan good-bye. Of course, I am glad she survived, but I wonder if that was Wolk’s original intention or if she felt pressure to make everything come out all right. I hope these thoughts make sense.

    • I remember that good-bye scene confusing me, too. Not because I thought Cate was going to die, necessarily, but because everyone else was being given a chance to grow and make choices, maybe even settle more firmly into a slightly different life, and it almost felt as though Larkin wasn’t and he was being sent away instead. Of course, he decided to go on a helpful quest, but that scene still felt odd to me.

      I liked that Ellie was trying other things to help her father, especially the harmless things that didn’t hurt him. I just felt like it was a bit of wish-fulfillment that it worked. Everything else (including the folk medicine about using honey and willow bark and such) was so practical, that this part just felt odd to me.

      I’ll also admit that, for whatever reason, this book exhausted me. I’m a thorough-going nature gal, and I loved those parts of this book, but the other parts wore me out, and by the end of it, I wasn’t tracking as well as I should. I’ve read the last few chapters, and skimmed them, and I still couldn’t tell you exactly what happened in them. I’m not sure I’ve ever had that problem before – I’m sure it’s me, not the book – so please take whatever criticisms I have with a grain of salt. I wasn’t this book’s audience, as much as I usually love Wolk’s work.

  10. As a thirteen year old, I found Ellie’s narrative mature but not overly so. It’s reflective. Personally, I find this refreshing. In other words, the style is distinguished. There are so many books that feel bouncy (if that makes any sense), and full of words such as “super” and “like” and “this and that amazing whatever”. While kids use these words, it’s starting to feel grating to me. I need an occasional reflective book and this fulfilled that need. That’s not to say Ellie isn’t occasionally wise beyond her years; but when she is it’s in saying things that provide food for thought. Also, I agree with Leonard Kim that the foreshadowing often felt overdone (though I liked it in Wolf Hollow). That aside, I loved it.

  11. Meredith Burton says:

    I understand how some portions of this book might be exhausting. Perhaps this was intentional on Wolk’s part as she sought to create the feelings of desperation that Ellie and her family feels. I do agree with the wish-fulfillment aspect, too. I’m glad the plot was resolved so nicely, but perhaps it was a bit too nicely resolved? That’s why I asked about the thoughts regarding Kate. And, yes, Kate sending Larkin away was a bit strange, though he had already had to witness death once. Perhaps she did not want him to have to do so again.

    It seems that a Newbery title should focus on a character’s growth and the achievement of agency, (that is, a character should find their voice in some way, a literal or metaphorical voice). Ellie is so strong and is the driving force of the book. She seems, in my opinion, to be the driving force for all the other characters’ growth. As another commentor says, you could easily picture this book being related by the individual characters as each one has a story. I almost wish Wolk had related the story from multiple perspectives, but perhaps that would have been too difficult.

    • Elizabeth Nelson says:

      I adored this book. I was captivated by the evocative nature writing, and the theme of nature as friend and foe. I have many readers who would not be put off at all by the descriptive medical writing, in fact, it may be one of the things (in addition to Ellie’s adventurous spirit) which makes this a great book for both boys and girls to read. I did not want the story to end — and would love to see more about Ellie, Echo Mountain, and her new extended family. “The things we need to learn to do, we learn to do by doing.” Best.

  12. Kirsten Hansen says:

    One of the real strengths of Echo Mountain, in my mind, is the sense of place. The mountain is so prominent throughout the book in relation to Ellie and her family. However, I was particularly struck by Larkin’s explanation of how the people who lived on the mountain prior to Ellie’s family felt about the newcomers driven there by the Depression. I can imagine that portion of the book fostering an interesting conversation about what it means when something feels like home (like the mountain does to Ellie) when it wasn’t yours to begin with.

    To Meredith’s point, I also felt that the end verged on wish-fulfillment. I don’t have as many qualms about Kate as I have about Ellie’s father waking up from the coma mostly intact ( so far as we know when the book closes). On the other hand, I’m not sure that I’d be any more satisfied narratively if Kate or Ellie’s father did pass away. And, overall, the book instilled in me a fervent gratitude for antibiotics!

  13. I really enjoyed this book. I thought the pacing was good, even in the chapters that were a tad longer. I didn’t mind spending the time lingering on certain things. I also didn’t mind the foreshadowing or cliff hangers at the end of each chapter. This technique made me want to keep reading and turning the page for more. I really connected with Ellie.Seeing I’m a middle child, I felt the author was spot on with Ellie’s voice and her motivation to help her father. I think the book as it stands would be very relatable for the MG set. At this age, kids are trying to figure out ‘who’ they are and what they’re made of. And I think the author perfectly captured the conflict that arose within Ellie’s family dynamics and how sometimes, no matter how well intentioned you are and your heart may be in the right place – even your own family can make assumptions about you. I’m glad the focus stayed on Ellie, since we’re reading about her life on Echo Mountain. I didn’t think or feel Ellie’s language was too adult; during that time period, that’s the way people spoke back then. They were more formal than in current day. Also, she had to grow up/mature quickly to replace her father’s role. Overall, I loved the writing and use of similes that embodied a lot of emotion. I also appreciated Ellie’s ability to connect with everything around her and respecting nature. Again, this story carries similar themes of survival (fear, guilt, hunger) and bravery. Even though it was a great read, I’m on the fence about it being a contender for the Newbery.

  14. Jody Timmins says:

    I cannot join the general praise for this book. Its strength for me was in its theme: when you are the only person who can do something, you need to do it, and learn as you go. That aspect of the story shone out for me, and was well developed.

    However, I thought that Wolk failed to create a believable child voice for Ellie, I thought the setting was confusing, and I though the pacing at the end of the story faltered.

    Specifically, Ellie’s endless use of metaphors and similes in the first half of the book did not sound childlike to me. If Wolk had used the once-popular convention of having an adult tell their story from the future, this would not have rankled so much. If she had chosen the third person, it would have been fine. But I simply did not believe that a twelve-year old girl would admire “vernal pools” or see frozen dew on the trees as “luscious.” Nothing about Ellie’s voice seemed authentic to me for the first half of the story, at least.

    I also found the setting of the book confusing. Was this historical fiction, or magical realism, or actual fantasy? Ellie is an “echo person” — she can feel what animals feel, apparently because of some magical property of the mountain itself. So, is this magical realism? But the “hag” on the hills turns out to be a nurse, not a magician: it’s historical fiction. And yet Ellie’s father has suffered a grievous accident and is dealing with pressure sores that would, in the real world of 1934, have killed him because of sepsis — but in the magical world of Echo mountain, he survives with these open wounds for weeks. And then, when he wakes from his coma, he has mild side effects and so little damage to his brain that he remembers all the events that led to his injury. This is not remotely realistic, and combined with all the other inconsistencies, took the book entirely out of the running for the Newbery for me.

    Historical fiction makes extra demands on a child reader. Truly distinguished books will not compound those contextual demands by laying out the world-building rules of their setting with such confusion.

    Along with other commentators, I also had problems with the pacing. In particular, I thought the pacing in the last half of the book broke from the first half of the book, and in ways that emphasized those earlier problems. Ellie’s early reliance on metaphor disappears, and the book becomes less about her magical sympathy for the mountain and its inhabitants and more about a frantic series of adventure tasks to complete.

    And finally, I was bothered that Ellie, the girl who’s so open to the rights and losses of the mountain’s early white inhabitants, only tells the reader that “someone, sometime” had named the river on her mountain. A girl who knows so very much about so very many things, even after all those years away from school, would also know that the Abenaki and Penobscot people were the first inhabitants of that mountain, and that they were the someones who gave the river its name. They should not have been erased.

    I realize that I’m very much the outlier in my response to this book. I wish I had liked it more.

    • Courtney Hague says:

      I hear you on your concerns about this book, Jody. I guess I heard Ellie’s voice as being similar to Anne Shirley (from Anne of Green Gables) which is sort of a standard trope in children’s lit. That sort of wide-eyed view of the world mixed with some fancy words feels very true to that trope anyway. I didn’t know whether to take her “echo person” role completely literally. I think it was more of a way to show how empathetic Ellie was and connected with nature and not necessarily that she was actually feeling all those things. But I can see that could be seen as a detractor from the book’s quality since the discussion of her “echo” nature was dropped by the end of the book.

      As for her father’s bedsores, I guess I put that up to sheer luck that he survived. I mean, at the very beginning of THE RISE AND FALL OF CHARLES LINDBERGH they talk about how Lindbergh’s grandfather chopped his own arm off at a sawmill and survived despite being in the backwoods of Minnesota. So stranger things have happened in reality.

  15. To comment on Maine as a backdrop for the story: Two of my favorite MG books of this century are both award winners set in Maine. There’s something perhaps in a place of ruggedness, nature and magic that lends to literary distinction. The Mostly True Adventures of Homer P. Figg is set in the Civil War and has one of the most disturbing (and mercifully brief) scenes of a child acting out of deprivation and the plot eventually hinges on the need to escape this. Lizzie Bright and the Buckminster Boy is alsoHistorical Fiction, but crosses into magical realism. in this case, the conflict is who gets to decide how to deal with the environment. I am interested in seeing how Echo Mountain compares to these two.

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