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Originally published Thursday, July 14, 2011 at 7:00 PM

Book review

Sapphire's 'The Kid': The son of Precious Jones navigates the urban minefield

Sapphire's "The Kid," the sequel to her 1996 novel "Push," follows the son of Precious Jones as he navigates the same brutal urban landscape as his mother. Sapphire will discuss her book Monday at Seattle's Elliott Bay Book Co.

Special to The Seattle Times

Author appearance

Sapphire

The author of "The Kid" will read at 7 p.m. Monday at the Elliott Bay Book Co., 1521 10th Ave., Seattle; free (206-624-6600 or www.elliottbaybook.com).
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The critical success of the 2009 movie "Precious" made a star of the young actress Gabourey Sidibe, who played the title character, an overweight, pregnant, African-American teen confronting a horrific series of indignities in the gritty Harlem world she inhabits.

But it also reintroduced us to the New York-based author Sapphire, who penned the 1996 novel on which the film is based, "Push." In it, Sapphire lays out the psychological journey of the unloved and neglected Precious Jones as she endures physical and emotional abuse from her mom, rape by her HIV-positive father, illiteracy, obesity and, as if all that weren't challenging enough, single motherhood.

It is a tale of ludicrously bad fortune that would be unbearable to read without Precious' raw and touching ruminations. "Push" is also a story about a quest for salvation, the kind of salvation that comes not from a power on high but from a person's own relentless will to make her spirit shine in spite of suffering.

Now Sapphire has brought us "The Kid" (Penguin Press, 376 pp., $25.95), a follow-up novel that carries the story forward through the youthful eyes of Precious' 9-year-old son, Abdul, soon after her death from AIDS.

Once again, Sapphire employs a dreamy, engagingly unfiltered first-person narrative to take readers inside the mind of Abdul, who has inherited his mom's tough attitude and boundless curiosity. But it comes as no surprise that the fate of an orphaned boy coming of age in the inner city will not be a rosy one. Abdul must soldier through torments of his own as he is shuttled through the child-services bureaucracy and from institution to institution.

Still, like his mother — who memorably learns to read at the age of 16 — Abdul has ambitions. He wants to become a dancer, start a family and have a normal life.

Sapphire is as much a poet as a novelist. At her best, she uses her poetic instincts to load even simple moments with poignancy, such as when Abdul thinks of his mom.

At Precious' funeral, one of her mentors recalls something the teen once said to her: "What difference does it make whether the glass is half-full or half-empty? You just drink as much as you can while you can." As the mentor tells her fellow mourners, Precious grew into a glass-half-full kind of person.

We see the potential for transformation and uplift in Abdul as well, as when he embraces his love of dancing. Naturally, he makes his own mistakes along the way.

Maybe we should be happy with this story about the struggles of the human spirit in a society seemingly ill-equipped to handle the full complexity of an at-risk and still-grieving boy's need. But Sapphire's urban abyss is wrenchingly brutal. Every time people get up, they get knocked back down — by circumstance, by the less-scrupulous people around them, by the AIDS crisis.

In the end, one wishes for something more fulfilling — like lasting triumph. We may have to wait for a follow-up to this open-ended story for that.

Tyrone Beason is a writer for Pacific Northwest magazine.

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