Linda Sue Park has woven
such an authentic story of a twelve-year-old potter’s apprentice in Korea in the 1100’s, during what in Europe
was the Middle Ages, that the reader knows what life was actually like for him. Tree-ear was an orphan abandoned to live with
an old man under a bridge on the outskirts of the poor village of Ch’ulp’o. The village was located near a special
type of white clay which contained iron that, when fired, turned a beautiful shade of green, creating celadon pottery. Many
of the villagers were potters, and Tree-ear often hid in the shrubbery and watched the most talented of these craftsmen, Min,
work on his potters wheel.
Tree-ear accidentally damages
a pot, so he becomes an apprentice to Min in order to work off his debt. The stark reality of his home life under the bridge
with his friend is in marked contrast to the beauty of the pieces which the potter Min creates.
Park’s attention to
detail is seen in her descriptions of life in the village:
In the past, keeping his
ears open to the talk of village life
had always been a crucial skill for Tree-ear. News of a wedding, for example, meant that the bride’s family would be
preparing much food in the days preceding the ceremony; their rubbish heap would merit special attention during that time.
The birth of a son, the death of a patriarch – these events likewise affected the state of a household’s garbage.
as well as her explanations of firing the pottery:
Each vase was placed carefully
on three seashells set in a triangle atop one of the clay shelves, in a position near the middle of the kiln where Min determined
it would fire the best. Then the wood was precisely arranged in a complicated crisscross pattern of many layers. The kindling
of twigs and pine needles was lit with a spark from a flint stone, and when the fire was well on its way, the door of the
kiln was sealed.
As the reader finishes the
book, he is treated with an “Author’s Note” which explains her research and some of the unusual customs
of the people about whom she has written. This part of the world is not often the focus of English prose, especially during
this era, and it is interesting to read these facts.
The reader is drawn into
the period and place by the thoughtful, precise way that the characters have of speaking. Asian people are known for their
soft-spoken, concise manner; and this is clearly seen in the dialog.
Even with the exact details
of the pottery-making process included in the text, the story of Tree-ear’s treacherous journey to deliver the precious
pots to the emperor and the resulting catastrophe easily takes center stage. The details only enhance the story, and are,
in fact, an important part of explaining how precise the process must be. Children, especially, will relate to Tree-ear’s
desire to learn to do something he has only watched before. The heartbreak he feels when Min refuses to teach him his trade
will be felt by all.
The universal theme of a
child overcoming seemingly insurmountable problems to find his way in life is beautifully illustrated in this remarkable story.
Linda Sue. 2001. A SINGLE SHARD. New York: Houghton Mifflin. ISBN: 0395978270.