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From The Asian Reporter, V17, #1 (January 2, 2007), page 15.

Awesome responsibility

The Firekeeper’s Son
By Linda Sue Park
Illustrations by Julie Downing
Clarion Books, 2004
Hardcover, 40 pages, $16.00

By Josephine Bridges

For most of the children in the world, childhood isn’t carefree. Varying degrees of responsibility are placed on young people, from something as common as looking after little siblings to something as extraordinary as transmitting news of peace or impending war across a nation. It’s this second kind of burden that rests on young Sang-hee’s shoulders. Will he be worthy of the task set before him?

"We live in an important village," Sang-hee’s father tells him. Looking around at huts, cows, chickens, and dogs, Sang-hee is dubious, but his father goes on to explain, "Our part of Korea is like a dragon with many humps." The village is important because the humps are mountains, and theirs is the closest to the sea. Every evening at sunset, Sang-hee’s father lights the first in a series of fires that will sparkle all across Korea, carrying the news that all is well to the king, far, far away.

"When trouble comes to our land, it almost always comes from the sea," Sang-hee’s father continues. "If ever we see enemy ships, I will not light our fire. And the next firekeeper will not light his fire …" And ultimately, the king would send soldiers to protect his people. Sang-hee’s father considers his family fortunate to live in a time of peace, but Sang-hee wishes he could see some real soldiers. "Just once."

When Sang-hee’s father hurts his ankle, the responsibility for lighting the first fire falls to his son. In a mystical sequence highlighted by Julie Downing’s magnificent watercolor paintings, Sang-hee wrestles with his responsibility. No, for this boy, childhood isn’t carefree at all.

The Firekeeper’s Son is a fine instructive tale, lavishly and lovingly illustrated, but it is more than that. It is a child’s window into a nation’s history. In her author’s note following the narrative, Linda Sue Park writes that, although her characters are fictional, "the bonfires were real. The bonfire signal system used in Korea was very complicated, and I have simplified it in the telling of this story, which is set in the early 1800s."

This is one of those books that children can read again and again, finding something new every time. There are plenty of topics for discussion, too, all the way from what life was like in the old days to why people fight wars. And I suspect there’s a little bit of Sang-hee in all of us, as the boy’s father suggests.

Linda Sue Park is helping to shape the minds that will shape our future. That is a source of comfort.

 

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