Ever since the release of the movie Precious, with its six Academy Award nominations, the book it’s based on, Push by the author Sapphire, has become popular. I love underdogs. Any chance I get to wallow in another’s sorrow is one I rarely pass up. When I first heard what Precious/Push is about—a sexually, emotionally, and physically abused African-American teenager growing up in Harlem—I couldn’t wait to see it. Instead, I fell victim to the movie’s hype and wanted to love the movie much more than I actually did. Both Gabourey Sidibe in the lead role and Mo'Nique in a supporting role did amazing jobs, but I felt their acting didn’t compensate for the oddly-simultaneous lackluster and sensationalistic editing, screenplay and directing. I haven’t read the book yet because I’m afraid I’ll be disappointed.
Part of my problem is I’m unfairly comparing Precious/Push to one of my all-time favorite books, The Color Purple, by Alice Walker. Like Precious/Push, The Color Purple was also made into a movie, but it’s worth the extra few hours spent reading Walker’s glorious prose to get the full effect of the story.
The novel begins when Celie is a fourteen year old African-American girl living in rural Georgia near the beginning of the 20th century. Like the protagonist in Precious/Push, Celie is also sexually, emotionally, and physically abused and taunted for her appearance. The man she thinks is her father rapes and impregnates her (as does the father in Precious/Push). When the babies are born, he takes them, leaving Celie to believe he’s murdered them. He marries Celie off to a widower who had asked for her younger sister Nettie’s hand. Celie is so beaten down by her new husband that she refers to him only as Mr. Nettie, escaping the abuse from their father, runs away to Mr. and Celie’s house, but Mr. kicks her out when she refuses his advances. Celie encourages Nettie to move in with a preacher and his wife in town. Nettie says she’ll write, but Celie doesn’t hear from her sister for decades.
Things start to turn around for Celie ironically when Mr.’s mistress, Shug Avery comes to live with them while she’s battling an illness. Not only does Shug influence Mr. to stop abusing Celie, but she shows Celie how to stand up for herself. As Celie develops her self-worth, she learns to derive pleasure from the simple beauty of God’s creation, such as a field of purple flowers. The two women also develop a sexual relationship, which is the first time Celie has ever experienced physical love. Life really gets better for Celie when Shug discovers a trunk full of old letters Mr. had been hiding. They’re from Nettie, who has gone with the preacher, his wife, and their two adopted children to work as missionaries in Africa. Nettie’s words bring more good news to Celie, and soon the sisters are reunited. After years of experiencing cruelty, Celie finally experiences love—physical, emotional, and spiritual.
There is a strong theme running throughout the story about how people are capable of changing. For example, the relationship between Celie and Mr. undergoes a metamorphosis from complete inequality and abject cruelty to a friendship based on mutual respect. They sit together on their front porch as equal companions, satisfied and fulfilled. At the beginning of the novel Celie is a scared, victimized teenager, but she blossoms into an independent woman who sees the celebratory beauty within herself, as glorious as a field of purple flowers.