As the book opens, nine-year-old son Abdul is staying with his mom's friend Rita and preparing for her funeral. The nine-year-old Abdul is delightful--Precious has obviously done a good job caring for him, exposing him to books, art, museums, and more. He doesn't completely understand the finality of what has happened; nor does he understand the things being said at her funeral--his mother had AIDS? she didn't learn to read until she was 16? These things are news to Abdul.
But these shocks are minor compared to those to come. The day after the funeral, a social worker delivers him to a foster home, where another child beats him so severely on his very first day that he has to be hospitalized with a concussion. Yet he is returned to the home, where he spends several months being sexually and physically abused before another hospital stint ends up with his transfer to a Catholic orphanage/boys school.
Sapphire then jumps ahead four years; Abdul is 13, has been sexually abused by the priests who run the school, and has become an abuser himself, sneaking through the dormitory at night molesting younger or weaker boys. Yet he is getting a good education and, by stumbling into an African dance class at the rec center, has discovered a love for dance. When he is accused of rape by a younger boy, he is kicked out of school and sent to live with his great-grandmother, whom he refers to as "Slavery Days." He spends only long enough there to be subjected to her deeply disturbing life story. He runs away--despite being very bright, he will never return to school. Instead, he moves in with dance teacher Roman, trading sex for a place to live and dance lessons.
Again, we jump ahead four years. Abdul has left Roman and is part of an avant garde dance troupe. While he is doing well in some ways, he is still full of rage--a rage that we learn has been expressed in various violent ways. He is struggling to learn how to relate to women; the first woman with whom he is involved, a fellow dancer who calls herself My Lai, has a story of abuse that is, in its own way, as harrowing as his own.
From his days at the orphanage on, Abdul has difficulty distinguishing between dreams and reality. And Sapphire never gives the reader any extra clues that will help us determine what is real and what is not. We are thoroughly inside Abdul's head--and it's a profoundly disturbing place to be. When, in the book's final section, Abdul is institutionalized, drugged, and subjected to electroshock therapy, neither he nor we understand what has happened.
Sapphire once again reveals how we, as a society, fail children and what the devastating consequences are: a child full of promise and hope transmutes into a deeply troubled, scarred (metaphorically and physically), and angry young man who has damaged himself and others. it's a tragic and deeply disturbing story.
All kinda people in here today dressed in bright-colored tights, leotards, and sweats, some got on African clothes. On one side of the room like trees growing up from the floor are four shiny drums sitting in front of four empty chairs. A big guy, taller than me, in a long white African robe, sits down behind the biggest drum. Then three more dudes sit down behind the other drums. They go BAP! BAP! Tee dee dee BAP BAP! Another guy picks up a flute and starts to blow. It's so beautiful it hurts, feels like someone just kicked me in the balls! . . . Something stops screaming in my head. In one fucking second I know my life, it's this sound.