By Maureen Tai, 21 July 2020
“Tree-ear was so called after the mushroom that grew in wrinkled half-circles on dead or fallen tree trunks, emerging from the rotten wood without benefit of parent seed. A good name for an orphan, Crane-man said.”
I love fictional middle-grade stories set in an unfamiliar time and place, be it in the past, present or distant imagined future, which also retain a link to people or things that are real or once tangible. In addition to the satisfaction of having read a good yarn, it is exciting to discover something new about the world. It’s a little like finally finding out the use for that doohickey that’s sat in the kitchen drawer for years. Linda Sue Park’s engrossing A Single Shard hits both notes. It tells the story of a possibly 12 year old boy called Tree-ear, and is set in a little village in Korea in the 12th century during a period when Korean celadon pottery was at its zenith. The exquisite jade green colour of this pottery, which also featured delicate inlay work, was achieved through the confluence of skilled artisanship, unwavering dedication, purity of materials and creative innovation. In Tree-ear’s case, he has some helping hands along the way.
Tree-ear lives under a bridge with his friend, Crane-man. Despite being homeless, poor and often hungry, the two are happy in each other’s company. Crane-man is so called because he was born with only one good functioning leg. Despite his disability, Crane-man becomes a father figure to Tree-ear, providing shelter, food, comfort and words of wisdom to the impressionable and likeable young boy.
The village of Ch’ulp’o where they live is by the ocean, and famous for its celadon pottery. Tree-ear is entranced by the craftsmen and tries to spy on them as they work, hoping to learn their secrets. While most guard their techniques and designs jealously, the potter Min works in a space next to his house, open and visible to inquisitive eyes. For this reason, and because Min is the best potter in the region, it is Min that Tree-ear watches the most.
Tree-ear’s curiosity causes an accident at Min’s workshop that ultimately changes the path of his life forever. Desperate to redeem himself, Tree-ear offers himself as a worker and the angry potter reluctantly agrees to accept from Min nine days of work. Min learns very quickly how back-breaking the preparatory work of pottery-making is: gathering and chopping wood from the mountainside using only a roughly made wooden cart to transport the cut logs. Tree-ears hands blister and bleed, and his body is racked with exhaustion and hunger. But he persists, strong-willed and determined, and by the end of the nine days, he gathers up the courage to ask Min to keep him on as a worker. Will Min agree?
Linda Sue Park’s story is masterfully told in luminous prose, with each rung of the story ladder placed perfectly so that readers are intrigued and driven to climb further and further up, turning page after page to discover what happens to our little orphan, whom we are secretly cheering on in our hearts. We meet Min’s wife, a gentle and kind lady, who makes Tree-ear’s meals. We learn more about the irascible, perfectionist Min, who pushes Tree-ear to his physical and mental limits. We develop a deep affection for the impoverished Crane-man, who loves Tree-ear as if he were his own flesh and blood. We root for our young orphan, who dreams of becoming a potter himself and of fashioning exquisite works of art from his own hands. Tree-ear’s story of courage and persistence in the face of almost unsurmountable obstacles will resonate with young readers (and adults too – I can attest to that). By the bittersweet end, you will emerge having lived, loved and learned with Tree-ear, with a hankering to know more about ancient Korean pottery to boot (a short video introduction to Koryo pottery can be found here).
For ages 8 and up.