“Echo Mountain” is a celebration of the human spirit. It’s a tale of miraculous opposites — loneliness and connectedness, loss and survival, change and permanence — all of which exist at the same time and in the same people.

Cover courtesy of Dutton Books for Young Readers

The Great Depression forces Ellie and her family to uproot from a comfortable life in town and move to the wilds of nearby Echo Mountain in Maine’s Oxford Hills, where they are reduced to a mean, hardscrabble existence. Ellie’s mother and teenage sister mourn their lost world, but Ellie embraces her new life in the wilderness.

She is a wonderful heroine: competent, persistent and fearless. She can start her own fire, tap a spring, catch trout and face down a bear. Her gift, or curse (everything in this book is double-sided), is having such extraordinary powers of empathy that she can’t help feeling the pain and sadness of all around her:

“I myself was two opposite things at the same time,” author Lauren Wolk writes. “One: I was now an excellent woods-girl who could hunt and trap and fish and harvest as if I’d been born to it. Two: I was an echo girl. When I clubbed a fish to death, my own head ached and shuddered. When I pulled a carrot from the sheath of earth, I too missed the darkness.”

Then one day Ellie’s father has an accident that leaves him comatose and that she nobly (if unfairly) shoulders the blame for. Spurred to find a way to bring him back, she discovers her own talent for healing. Having restored a stillborn puppy to life by dunking it in cold water she is determined to try something similar with her father —anything she can think of to wake him from his sleep. She is creative and relentless despite the criticism meted out by her sister and mother, both of whom harbor a festering anger at her for her father’s condition. For example, Ellie puts a snake in his bed hoping it will cause her sister to scream loudly enough to jolt him out of his coma.

Faced with constant disapproval at home, Ellie strikes up a forbidden friendship with a healer — an old woman who lives alone high on Echo Mountain — and a mysterious boy named Larkin who is helping nurse the old woman through an illness. Feared and shunned by Ellie’s neighbors as a “hag” and a witch, the woman mentors them in natural healing methods (warning: her use of maggots to eat her own dead flesh is guaranteed to make you squirm).

Through Ellie’s journey, Wolk explores the nature of healing, both physical and emotional, from ancient fear of women healers, to assumptions that girls might become nurses but never doctors. Her writing often has a simple poetic ring to it, as when Ellie says, after an encounter with a bear: “I got up slowly, in chapters, and quietly brushed myself off.”

Over and over again Wolk, who lives on Cape Cod, returns to the theme of echoes and doubleness, of change and immutability, the way we both evolve and yet remain the same.

“As I looked into her blue eyes,” Ellie says of the old woman, “I knew both what she was and what she had once been, which were really the same thing, though they weren’t…another soul both split in two and doubled.” Or the healer telling Ellie, when she says she wishes she had known her mother as a young woman: “She was different, of course…. The sun never rises the way it did the day before…. But it’s still the sun. And we’d all be just as cold without it.” Or when Ellie comments that Larkin’s mother, who has become engulfed by darkness after losing her husband, “Maybe she’ll wake up soon and come back to what she used to be.” “Or,” says the healer, “what she’ll be next.”

But in the end, Echo Mountain is about connectedness. Passing on knowledge, for example, is a kind of connective tissue that binds generations together: the art of making a fire passed from Ellie’s father to her, from her to her younger brother; the healer teaching Ellie how to treat a wound, and Ellie showing her sister the same skill; Larkin’s father teaching him how to make lutes, like the one (as they learn to their amazement) that Ellie’s mother owns and cherishes.

The story’s climax hinges on the revelation that everyone and everything is connected (even the dogs!) in ways no one could have guessed. It is a salve for their sadness. As Ellie observes, “Loneliness shared is loneliness halved.”

The web of life is what we make of those connections. The result, here, is a moving story and a healing poultice for our own hard times.

Amy MacDonald is a children’s book author and freelance writer from Falmouth. She may be reached at [email protected]


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