Valyruh’s CBR#5 Review #36: A Single Shard by Linda Sue Park

Park’s young adult novel  A Single Shard was recommended to me by a friend when she learned I was taking—and tremendously enjoying—a pottery class at a nearby art center. The story itself takes place in 12th century Korea and is about Tree-Ear, a young Korean orphan who lives under a bridge with an elderly cripple named Crane-Man. The two friends spend their time foraging for food and protecting each other as best they can, and theirs is a hard life. Tree-Ear has a secret passion, though, which is to steal bits of time to watch—hidden and at a distance—the work of master potter Min, and to dream of emulating it one day.

The village in which Tree-Ear lives is one of several in Korea of the time which specialize in the highly-coveted pottery ware known as celadon, known for its pure clay and even purer green glazes, and all of the potters compete for a royal commission which can mean the difference between hand-to-mouth surviving and actual living. Min is an expert in producing exquisite Celadon ware, but because he is a perfectionist, he produces fewer products than the other potters and his livelihood is more tenuous. Tree Ear has a dream of becoming Min’s apprentice someday, unaware that the law requires potters to only train their sons as their apprentices. Min’s son has died.

Tree Ear manages to break one of Min’s pots, and in penance, must do menial labor for Min, including cutting the raw clay out of the ground, cutting endless supplies of wood to keep the village kiln burning, draining and pounding the clay to remove its sediments, and more. His hope of getting access to the potter’s wheel is repeatedly dashed, but he is unwittingly learning the craft that goes into the production of celadon ware, while the reader gets a beautiful lesson in the art of pottery—from treatment of the clay, to the production of glaze, to the techniques of firing and etching. Tree Ear’s test comes when Min’s chance at a royal commission depends on the delivery of two perfect vases to the capital city for examination, and Tree Ear—who has never left his village—offers to take it for the old man. During the week-long journey, he is beset by robbers and the vases are smashed, but Tree Ear manages to bring a single shard representing Min’s unique talent to the waiting examiner, and wins the commission for Min.

The end is pretty easy to anticipate—Tree Ear’s dedication is rewarded with adoption by Min and his wife, and his apprenticeship at the wheel, from which he moves on to fame and fortune. Author Park knows how to reproduce the flavor of the period, using lovely imagery and simple but effective language to transmit Tree-Ear’s yearning to become part of the creative genius that is Min’s, and also to transcend his own fixed existence as a lowly orphan with honor and dedication.  A simple and beautiful tale for a young person, but this oldster enjoyed the pottery details with unalloyed delight.

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