by Linda Sue Park
Interests: Korea, artists, pottery, history, orphans
Clarion Books (Houghton Mifflin): 2001
152 pp – 13 chapters
Also by this author: The Kite Fighters, Seesaw Girl, A Long Walk to Water
Tree-ear is thirteen, a homeless orphan in 12th century Korea. He lives under a bridge with Crane-man, a lame old man who provides for the boy as best he can. Their village is known far and wide for the quality of its celadon ware pots and when Tree-ear secretly watches the master potter Min at work on his wheel, he becomes obsessed with trying his hand at it. After he accidentally breaks one of the master’s pots, Tree-ear must work off the damage, and through his persistent efforts he slowly wins the sour old man’s respect. Competing for a royal commission, Tree-ear is given the job of transporting two of Min’s most precious pots to the capital city. Sadly he is waylaid by thieves, who break the pots, but Tree-ear rescues one shard and continues to the palace. On the evidence of that one shard Min wins his commission, and Min agrees to take Tree-ear on as an apprentice. As this duty is normally reserved for the sons of potters, Tree-ear has not only gained a job but a family as well.
It’s a more complex plot than I have laid out here, the road to winning Min’s approval is extremely long, as the man is hard and cantankerous. Details about the preparation of clay for working, and glazing and firing the pottery are fascinating. Great care is taken in describing the methods of an artist dedicated to producing only his finest work. However commerce is not left out – the royal commission is a great prize to be won, and will secure Min’s income for the rest of his days.
Tree-ear is a likeable, earnest and hardworking youth. He makes mistakes but works hard to make things right. He cares for Crane-man, often going hungry himself to make sure the old man has enough to eat. And as poor as they are, Crane-man and Tree-ear often discuss moral questions, the fine line between right and wrong, and how hard work is always preferable to begging. Under Min’s stern eye Tree-ear works very hard and endures much to win the chance to work with clay himself. He must exercise amazing patience and restraint along the way, but also demonstrates initiative in rescuing the shard and completing his journey. Above all this is a vivid look at the historic tradition of apprenticeship, and the long road to becoming a master craftsman.
The Author’s Note at the end gives further background information and historical sources: more about Koryo celadon, and why the glaze sometimes turned brown in the firing (a mishap which marrs some of Min’s best work).
A revealing look at the potter’s craft, the role of the apprentice, and the courage and hard work it takes for a poor orphan to make his place in the world. An involving read with a very human hero.