Ellie’s family has been driven from their small Maine town to a little patch of land on the mountain due to the Great Depression in “Echo Mountain” (Dutton 2020) by Lauren Wolk. Her father had been a fine tailor, her mother a music teacher, but no one could afford such things in the early thirties and their poverty is deep. They’ve been on the mountain for a couple of years.
Twelve-year-old Ellie and her father take to living off the land, but her sister and mother do not. Samuel, at six, would be fine anywhere, it seems. Ellie has become something of a mountain girl. In the opening scene, their dog Maisie has given birth to a litter, but one puppy is dead. Mother instructs Ellie to bury it. Instead, Ellie douses it in a bucket of cold water. The puppy gasps and lives. Ellie is a natural healer that she describes as a flame in her chest which guides her. When Samuel asks why she did that, she says when he’d dropped snow down her back, she’d gasped. Why not the puppy?
Early in the story, Father is not present. He’s asleep—a prolonged sleep—a coma. The reason is uncovered gradually. But Daddy had taught Ellie to be self-sufficient. As an empath, she feels for people, animals, trees, the mountain itself, which stands her in good stead to be a healer. Not only does she try to cure her sleeping father, but the hag she finds up-mountain.
A fishercat has gouged the hag’s leg. Ellie finds her unconscious with magots roiling in the wound. Ellie is about to cauterize the wound with a heated chisel when the woman awakens to stop her, saying the magots are eating the dead flesh of the wound—a cure. Voila! Ellie has a healing mentor and at least one reader is fascinated.
The hag’s wound needs honey for disinfectant. Whereas she feels bad for the bees that will sting her and die, she makes a fire from a flint and tinder, creates a torch, extinguishes it. She smokes the bees out of their hive and takes the honeycomb. A couple of years ago her father had taught her to make fire, saying you must learn by doing it. Ellie asks the age-old question, “How am I supposed to do something that will teach me how to do it if I don’t know how to do it in the first place?” Practice.
When Ellie comes upon a long-abandoned foundation she says, “When I put my hand on those boulders, I could feel how much they missed the steady weight of a cabin above them. The idea they had been of use.” Ellie is wise. She’ll keep silent and shoulder the burden of blame rather than make her loveable little brother or even her annoying sister know her father’s accident was their fault. She recognizes, when she meets Larkin, that “loneliness shared is loneliness halved.”
I love this book, and as a young reader, I’d have devoured it. It might have changed my life.
Patricia Hruby Powell is the author of the award-winning Lift As You Climb; Josephine; Loving vs Virginia; and Struttin’ With Some Barbecue all signed and for sale at Jane Addams bookstore. She teaches community classes at Parkland. talesforallages.com