Chaim Potok | Critical Review by Irving Abrahamson

This literature criticism consists of approximately 3 pages of analysis & critique of Chaim Potok.
This section contains 786 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
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Critical Review by Irving Abrahamson

SOURCE: "Chaim Potok Traces a Korean War Orphan's Existentialist Journey," in Chicago Tribune Books, May 17, 1992, p. 6.

In the following review, Abrahamson finds shortcomings in I Am the Clay, citing Potok's "unsuccessful foray into the realm of existentialist thought" and his simplistic appeal for Christian love.

In The Book of Lights (1981) Chaim Potok drew upon his experience as a U.S. Army chaplain in South Korea from 1955 to 1957. In I Am the Clay, his eighth novel, he draws upon it once again, this time taking the 1950–53 Korean War for his canvas. Potok is not interested in the 38th parallel, in the North Korean invaders and their Red Chinese allies, nor in the clash of armies. What interests him is the impact of the war upon the countryside and its peasant farmers. He renders this impact through the eyes and experiences of an old peasant couple and Kim Sin Gyu, the orphaned young boy they save from death.

Shifting the point of view from one character to another, Potok pictures a dangerous world: troops in retreat; long processions of refugees; jeeps, trucks and tanks on the go; helicopters whirling overhead; jets streaking by. Thieves, roving gangs of orphans and suspicious South Korean soldiers menace the innocent. Refugees huddle in the night around wood-burning oil drums. Black smoke rises from huge mounds of corpses set afire by flame throwers.

Potok focuses in on the struggle for survival as the farmer, his wife and the boy battle hunger, sickness, cold, exhaustion and the land itself. He traces their emotions, calls up their memories, delves into their spiritual world—their ancestor worship, their acceptance of a world governed by unseen demons, spirits and ghosts.

But Potok draws his title from a hymn that Christian missionaries taught the old woman's mother. The farmer's wife still remembers the song her mother taught her: "Have thine own way Lord have thine own way thou art the potter I am the clay," even as she recalls how to make the sign of the cross—one stroke with the hand horizontally, another vertically.

Though she is totally ignorant of the meaning of the words of the song and the sign of the cross, Potok portrays her as living the life of a Christian, and just hours before her death he formally turns her into one, having her undergo a symbolic baptism. Just as the words "Have thine own way Lord" cross her mind, she suffers a stroke and slips gently into the stream where she has been washing clothes.

Potok chooses as the motto for his story a line from Albert Camus' "The Myth of Sisyphus," and, at first glance, Kim Sin Gyu does have existential possibilities. A survivor of the massacre of his entire family, in the last few pages of the novel—now all of 14 and at a critical point in his life—he invokes the spirits of his dead to protect him and guide him toward his future. But when they do not respond, he faces the stark existential meaning of their absence and asks himself, "Are the spirits as helpless as men? Perhaps there are no spirits anymore … and only emptiness is left for us to fill." And his decision to leave the old farmer behind and pursue in Seoul the studies that will lead him into the world of the scholar or the poet comes across as an existential choice, a break with the Korean fatalistic order of things. Determined to go his own way, Kim Sin Gyu—the only character Potok ever names—might well be a Korean youngest brother to Asher Lev.

But Kim Sin Gyu makes his decision before his confrontation with nothingness, not as a result of it. Indeed, his decision is no real choice at all: He is simply consciously fulfilling a destiny predetermined by the centuries-old intellectual tradition to which his family belongs.

Camus' Sisyphus, recognizing that he lives in a universe "without a master," realizes that he alone is "the master of his days." Surely Potok knows that for Camus there is no potter other than man, who must mold his own clay. For all Potok's sleight of hand, his Kim Sin Gyu is a world away from Western individualism and existentialist thought.

If Potok makes a case for anything at all, it is for Christian love. The old farmer's attitude toward Kim Sin Gyu changes from anger and hatred to love. Likewise, his wife's attitude toward the boy shifts to love from kindness. Kim Sin Gyu himself even leaves the old farmer because of his love for him.

Except for its unsuccessful foray into the realm of existentialist thought, I Am the Clay, offers no challenge. But it seems likely that the novel will satisfy Chaim Potok's audience.

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This section contains 786 words
(approx. 3 pages at 300 words per page)
Buy the Critical Review by Irving Abrahamson
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