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I Am the Clay Summary

(Masterpieces of American Literature)

I Am the Clay is a most touching story that should have particular appeal to young readers. This novel chronicles the arduous departure of an old Korean peasant couple who are forced from their village because the Chinese and people they identify as friends from the north are invading their territory and will unquestionably deal harshly with any civilians left behind.

As their precipitate flight continues, they find a boy near death in a drainage ditch. Although the old man wants to abandon the child, his wife will not hear of doing so. She nurses the boy back to health and takes him into her family as one of her own. The boy, as it turns out, is able to reciprocate their care in remarkable ways. First he saves the couple from an attack by a pack of wild dogs. Next he finds fish for them to eat when they are desperately hungry and on the brink of starvation. Eventually, he manages to obtain an ox for them.

Finally the old man is won over by the boy and accepts him as a surrogate member of the family. He is convinced that the boy has brought him and his wife luck. As these three disparate characters move toward evolving into a family, each of the three has to deal with ghosts from their pasts.

The old man has to fight his overwhelming appetite for meat, developed when he was young and strong enough to hunt for his food. His insatiable cravings are difficult for him to control. His wife, on the other hand, has to deal with her sad, lingering memories of having lost her own child in infancy. The boy in many ways becomes a surrogate for the child the old woman has lost.

This boy, however, probably has the most difficult demons to fight in his past as he reflects on how his entire family has been killed and on how his village has been leveled. He has a new life and hope for a future, but his past will always haunt him. Potok once said that without stories we lose the past, and this is a typical example of how stories keep the past alive and serve as cautionary memories of the brutality of human conflict.

Despite the harsh events of the Korean conflict, Potok seems to suggest that there is always hope for the future. Possibly he believes in the perfectibility of humans, although he certainly suggests that they move toward perfection at a snail’s pace and that they experience incredible setbacks along the way.