The title of Linda Sue Park's "A Single Shard" is drawn from the fact that a single sliver of the smashed remains of a beautifully intricate piece of pottery must ultimately decide the fate of a 12th century Korean master potter.
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Tree-ear, a destitute orphan, has a dream that no one in his position can ever hope to realize. He yearns to learn the art of pottery from the master potter, Min. He maneuvers his way into Min's employ, but is relegated to chopping wood and digging clay. He secretly takes every opportunity to watch the potter and learn the honored trade.
When Min learns of a new method of transferring beautiful, delicate, and colorful forms onto pottery, he creates several masterpieces. Tree-ear embarks on a long and difficult journey to deliver the works of art to the royal court, in hopes of obtaining his beloved master a commission from the emperor. Along the way, he is accosted by bandits, and the pottery is smashed to pieces. Taking this as a humiliating failure, Tree-ear must find a way to earn the commission for his master.
Park skillfully develops the characters. Tree-ear is hard-working, polite, and honest. When he discovers that a rival potter has developed a unique process, he is torn between his desire to reveal the process to Min and his integrity in realizing he would be stealing something that is another man's work. This is a real struggle for him, and Park reveals the true character of Tree-ear by making it so.
Tree-ear's goal to become a potter like the great Min seems useless. In his society, poor orphans do not rise above their miserable stations. Tree-ear knows this, but he never wavers.
Tree-ear's constant companion, Crane-man, shares a life of poverty with the young boy. Crane-man is the only family that Tree-ear has ever known. Crane-man is so called because of a deformity in his leg, necessitating the use of a cane. Like Tree-ear, he is stuck at the bottom of the social heap; yet he refuses to beg or steal. Instead, he uses his wits to survive, and passes his knowledge and ethics to the young Tree-ear, instilling honesty and pride in the boy.
The relationship between the crippled man and the young boy is central to the plot. Living under the town bridge, the two have a relationship that is warm, caring, and often playful. They tell stories, skip stones on the river, and discuss the honorable way to do things.
Tree-ear feels a responsibility toward old Crane-man. When Min's wife gives Tree-ear a hearty lunch on his first day of work, Tree-ear is embarrassed that he greedily eats it all, saving nothing for Crane-man. From that point forward, he is careful to take part of the meal to his old friend.
These two are destitute, yet their spiritual and emotional lives are rich. Tree-ear learns from the wise Crane-man; Crane-man has something to live for in the young boy. They are a perfect complement to each other, and their relationship is a touching one.
The potter Min is an enigma. Prone to temper tantrums and stand-offish behavior, he refuses to acknowledge Tree-ear's value to him. This confuses and saddens Tree-ear, but he pushes aside his own need for affection and inclusion, concentrating on his goal. Min has a secret sorrow about which Tree-ear soon learns, helping him to understand the old man.
Park's narrative is relatively smooth flowing. She skillfully paints word pictures of the countryside, the town and the characters. The chapters are well-crafted, and leave the reader wondering what will happen next. The text is perfect for middle grade readers, both in subject and reading level. It's also captivating for adults, however.
Park evidently knows a great deal about pottery and and its crafting. There are several passages that describe how the clay is dug, formed, colored, and fired. Some of these are extremely interesting; others are too detailed and boring. These are the only few moments in which the narrative snags.
Parts of the story carry emotional wallops. One in particular involves Tree-ear's first complete piece of pottery - a small monkey - that he presents to his crippled friend. When tragedy takes Crane-man from the boy, Tree-ear fondles the monkey and whispers the ultimate wish for his friend: "Wherever you are on your journey, Crane-man...I hope you are traveling on two good legs."
While this story is fictional, Park bases it upon actual Korean art pieces. Tree-ear eventually creates a beautiful piece decorated with cranes, in memory of his dear friend. In an afterword, Park reveals that the crane piece is based upon an actual artifact, called the "Thousand Cranes Vase," housed at the Kansong Museum of Art in Seoul.
Korean tradition weaves in and out of the plot. Some of the examples of this are: Tree-ear's deference to elders, despite their moods or unfair outbursts; the symbol of the fox as an evil creature, luring humans to their deaths; the role of the town monks in caring for the poor of the town, but in a very structured manner; the emphasis on respect for craftsmen and their place in simple town life.
"A Single Shard" is a beautiful study in characters. It transports the reader into an unfamiliar world, and makes that world real and vivid. This is a wonderful tale of friendship, youthful naiveté, sadness, simple happiness - and, most importantly, hope!
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