Melinda's Review of Potok's first novel I Am the Clay from The Times (London) December 5, 1992
In his excellent novel, I Am the Clay, Chaim Potok draws on his experiences as an army chaplain during the Korean war to bring us an achingly sensual vision of Korean peasants whose lives are uprooted and transformed by war. Potok is a poet and a visionary who writes with breathtaking ease about the limits of human experience, of death, of the superstitious and spirit worlds of the peasants and of courage born from suffering.
His protagonists are innocent victims, refugees fleeing from the Chinese and North Koreans, struggling for survival in the bitter winter. He refers to them as “the old man”, “the old woman” and “the boy”, evidently trying to suggest the universality of their plight, much as D.H. Lawrence would refer to his characters when he intended for them to take on mythical proportions. But these and other contrived attempts to universalise the peasants’ experience fall flat. In particular, Potok is uneasy with conversation, never allowing a hint of spontaneity or realism to enter his dialogues. But this is a small failing when one considers his considerable achievement, which is to take one on an uplifting journey towards compassion for others, and towards a faith in the efficacy of goodness.
When the old man and woman find a badly wounded boy as they are fleeing the warscape, the old man, thinking only of his own survival, hopes to leave the boy to die. He feels “the boy is merely one small death amid all the other dying. A portion of his rice would go to the boy. A waste of precious food.” The woman defies her husband and “adopts” the boy as her son, nursing him back to health. Her compassion for the boy is total and it is Potok's achievement to have given compassion such a palpable, sensual power, leaving us in no doubt that it is the reason for this family's survival and more powerful than the forces of war.
The old woman is eventually returned to the spirit world, her mission completed, and the boy goes off to study in Seoul. The old man who sees him off at the station is suddenly, for the first time, moved by compassion for the boy. Here the book ends, with our attention on the character who has least deserved our affection. Can we extend our compassion towards him? Therein lies a good reason to re-enter Potok's world and reread this remarkable novel.