“It’s not my fault you lost your son, not my fault I’m an orphan! Why must it be father to son? If the pot is made well, does it matter whose son made it?”
A Single Shard is an engaging story about a 12th century Korean boy of twelve who is trying to find his way in life. The boy called Tree-ear does not have a comfortable home and lifestyle, and sheer survival is an issue he faces daily. Although an orphan, he is fortunate enough to have a father-son relationship with the elderly Crane-man, who has taken care of Tree-ear since he was a young child. I really liked the way Park depicted the relationship between these two “down-and-outers.” Crane-man provides for Tree-ear’s basic needs such as food and shelter and gives him instruction and advice about life. Tree-ear obviously loves and respect the old man. In spite of the fact that Tree-ear and Crane-man live under a bridge and share any small amounts of food they are able to beg or gather, Tree-ear seems content with his life to a certain extent. They both have positive attitudes, support each other, and make each other laugh. Tree-ear does the best he can in his situation and has actually “come to appreciate his lowly status.” Tree-ear recognizes that Crane-man sacrifices a great deal for him and ponders to himself that it seemed “his friend spent the entire day figuring out how to transform a handful of weeks and bones into something that resembled a meal.” Crane-man is a great example of sacrificial love in the way he deals with Tree-ear. And Tree-ear longs to somehow give him something in return.
Although Tree-ear is a poor, homeless orphan, he is obviously bright and has the potential to accomplish much, if only given the opportunity. After secretly watching the village’s most talented potter, Tree-ear develops a growing desire to learn the skill of pottery-making and wants to make a beautiful vase himself. He is by nature a motivated, determined, and clever boy, and he is able to persuade Min to teach him his art. Tree-ear works diligently, even when the potter neither encourages nor helps him. He is always respectful and submissive to authority, which is a reflection of the Korean culture. While Min isn’t physically abusive, he never offers Tree-ear the positive feedback or patient instruction that a trainee needs from his master-teacher.
When Min is requested to make and bring samples of his fine pottery work to the court of the king, Tree-ear is assigned the task of making the journey to deliver the vases. Along the way, he is confronted by robbers who destroy his “useless” vessels and Tree-ear begins to feel he has failed in his task. But as he picks through the broken pieces of pottery and examines one large piece, he reconsiders:
Across one side of the shard ran a shallow groove, evidence of the vase’s melon shape. Part of an inlaid peony blossom with its stem and leaves twined along the groove. And the glaze still shone clear and pure, untouched by the violence that had just been done it…Suddenly, Tree-ear raised his head. He stood up and squared his shoulders, still clutching the piece of pottery …He had made up his mind: he would journey on to Songdo and show the emissary the single shard.
When Tree-ear is commissioned with a challenging task, his shear determination, intelligence and courage enable him to succeed when others would have given up. Eventually Tree-ear earns both the respect and love of Min and his wife and finds a home with them. The reader will find himself early in the story admiring and sympathizing with Tree-ear and will be eager to see him find love, family and success. Besides reading a touching and satisfying story that depicts good character lessons, the story also gives the reader a little insight into a time and culture he may be unfamiliar with.
By the way, if you like A Single Shard, you may also enjoy The Kite Fighters by Linda Sue Park, another story set in Korea about two brothers who learn that their differences is what gives each of them value as individuals.