"Young Douglas’ runaway imagination is a growing problem. He believes the rogue violin communicates with him across time and space."

This magical story begins in 1941 in Elizabethtown, New York, where a haunting violin melody slices the starry night and mingles with the smoke from a burning farmhouse, a temporary refuge for Basque immigrants. Now homeless, the colorful, gypsy-like band departs, accidentally leaving behind the violin, which miraculously survives the fire.

An unusual young orphan named Douglas finds the instrument near the smoldering remains. Although Douglas is mute by choice, he has an uncanny capacity for listening, especially to the language of water, trees, and wind. In fact, he hears music in every sound: the rustle of garments, the slide of shadows, the pound of hail, an ice cream truck, an engine’s stammer, and the gurgle of a percolator. Perhaps not surprisingly, the boy and the violin converse together—she silently and he out loud.

This miracle of speech delights Hester Smythe, who rescued Douglas as a baby and generously turned an inherited lodging into a home for him and three of her distantly related, impoverished young relatives. With a unique and delightful cast of live-in characters, this inn is not a typical children’s home in the scenic Adirondacks. A wise, kindly Chinese cook, his Swedish wife, a Russian dancer, and three spirited playmates enliven Smythe Home.

Hester soon arranges violin lessons for Douglas with Professor Stoya and his wife, local music instructors with grandiose ambitions. Stoya, an ungenerous character, requires Douglas’ violin as payment, promising to return it if the boy becomes a virtuoso. Stoya knows the violin, named Magic Muriel by Douglas, is special—almost as special as Stoya’s Performance Violin, which he lends parsimoniously to students, including his son, Willi, the bully.

The Performance Violin functions as a type of “sorting hat” for those familiar with the world of Harry Potter, giving an “honest reflection of each player’s skill and soul,” in the words of Magic Muriel. So begins a remarkable sixteen-year-long saga of a sensitive, special boy who faces myriad psychological, spiritual, musical, emotional, and physical obstacles on a journey toward maturity.

Higbee, an artist whose violinist father played a rare 1822 D’Espine violin, masterfully harmonizes the historical and the fictional in this bildungsroman of magic realism. Especially helpful is the introductory list of “historical” and “fictional” elements. A “historical elements” addendum amplifies the sense that the real world of violins and violinists is as strange as the one she portrays in close to 500 pages.

The author successfully animates the intriguing and complicated history of the violin world with equally fascinating and complex fictional characters. For example, the novelized Douglas plays marbles with the real-life violin prodigy Michael Rabin, who lives in the real-life Lilacs, a cottage the Rabin family rented in Elizabethtown. The made-up Stoya surrenders his dream of starting a famous music school when real-life Ivan Galamian (who taught Itzhak Perlman and Michael Rabin, among others) forms the actual Meadowmount School of Music in upstate New York in 1944. The famed cellist Gregor Piatigorsky (called by Galamian “the greatest string player of all time”) befriends Stoya in the real Windy Cliff, a Tudor castle in the Adirondacks, where the actual Piatigorsky lived. Touches like these abound and will thrill the lover of historical fiction, magic realism, and music.

Poetic language mimics the beauty of the musical world and Douglas’ outsized existence. Hearts flap “like laundry in the wind” and “bounce like a marionette on strings.” A forest fire “becomes a fence of sharp orange tongues.” The sentence “White staccatos of light hit the asphalt like stabs of anticipation” describes a hail storm. Nature is a harbinger of moods and foretells the future, both a Cassandra and a Pollyanna of the Adirondacks. Higbee’s prose evokes the works of Isabel Allende, Alice Hoffman, Gabriel Garcia Marques, Olga Tokarczuk, and Khaled Hosseini in a manner both adults and young adults can appreciate.

The book imparts mystery and poses a few, too. Will Douglas find his mother, discover a worthy music teacher, be reunited with Magic Muriel and discover her true identity, and be lucky in love? Will he atone for his sins and be restored? Will the accompanying cast of characters likewise find their answers? Will the missing 1720s red violin from Cremona, Italy, be found? Will the grace of music light the darkness? So many matters are there to be resolved.

Higbee’s ending draws the strings together in an unexpected way that is both physical and mystical and also singularly apt. The author’s delightful, captivating, and unusual coming-of-age story set in the scenic Adirondacks in the violin’s musically fertile era of the 1940s and 1950s more than fulfills her goal of realistically portraying nonfictional individuals. Her use of magic realism to do so shows enviable mastery. The planned sequels in the series will undoubtedly be eagerly anticipated.

RECOMMENDED by the US Review

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