I Am the Clay
Posted by nliakos on April 17, 2014
by Chaim Potok (Fawcett Crest, 1992)
I’ve read The Chosen and The Promise, Potok’s well-known novels about the friendship between an Orthodox Jew and a Hasid in 20th century New York, so I was very surprised to discover this novel about three Koreans caught up in the Korean civil war: an elderly couple fleeing marauding northerners and the young boy they rescue along the way. The story unfolds from the point of view of all three characters: the woman who, childless herself, is driven to save the dying boy; her husband who resents the boy and is somewhat jealous of his hold over the woman; and the boy himself, the only one to miraculously escape the slaughter of his family and neighbors and the destruction of his village. We learn their thoughts as a stream of consciousness; at times the thoughts of one blend seamlessly into the thoughts of the other so that it’s difficult to figure out who is thinking what.
It’s hard to read about the threesome’s experiences on the road. They must overcome injuries, infections, illnesses, extreme cold, lack of adequate clothing, shelter, and medicine, and the betrayal of their fellow refugees, all of whom are desperately doing whatever it takes to survive. In Maslow’s hierarchy of needs, they have nothing–except perhaps love, which is slow to develop, at least for the man and the boy. The reader mentally extrapolates their suffering to the hundreds of thousands of refugees not only in Korea at that time, but in many countries and at many different times. How can one person suffer so much and still hang on to life?
Eventually, they are able to return to the couple’s village, where the boy finds work in an American military compound, and where the connection between these people and Chaim Potok at least becomes clear: the boy encounters a Jewish chaplain who will help him. And yes, Potok served as a chaplain during the Korean War. I wonder whether he based the story on someone he actually met and helped while he was there–or he may have heard about the story from someone else. Or he may just have made it up. regardless, the man, the woman (neither of whom are ever named), and the boy are very believable, sympathetic characters, and the story moves quickly to its sad conclusion.