Saturday, July 10, 2010

The First Part Last

The First Part Last, by Angela Johnson. 2002.

This is a strong, emotional read that does something that I think very few books manage – that is, to create a strong, authentic male voice. Bobby is a father – and he’s 16. This was not part of his plan, or his girlfriend, Nia’s, plan…or his parents’ or her parents’ plan, but it’s the reality. And the reality we see Bobby struggle through with Feather, his infant daughter, is a hard one. He is awake night after sleepness night with a newborn, endures hour-long subway ride getting her to daycare every morning before school, all while attempting to maintain some semblance of a life.

The novel, the 2003 Coretta Scott King Author Award Winner, is told in alternating flashbacks, labeled “Now” and “Then.” In the “Now” sections, we see Bobby struggling to learn to be a father to Feather, and the “Then” segments detail the progression of events from the day Bobby learns that Nia is pregnant – on his sixteenth birthday – up to the day that Feather is born. The tension increases throughout the novel as it becomes more and more apparent that the future being planned in the “Then” segments – a future where Bobby and Nia give Feather up for adoption – doesn’t come to be, and the reader is left wondering exactly what happens to alter events so significantly. Additionally, Nia is entirely absent in the “Now” sections, and the question of her absence becomes more and more pressing as the story progresses.

What is apparent – and touching - is the deep and encompassing love that Bobby has for Feather. However, that is a love that is presented with an unflinching rendering of what it costs Bobby – his exhaustion and frustration and fear are palpable, and it culminates in an event that almost costs him everything he has been working so hard to maintain. The costs to Nia are extreme as well, and the effects the pregnancy and birth have on both Bobby’s and Nia’s parents is also moving (perhaps more to this adult reader who finds it very easy to empathize with Bobby’s disappointed and frustrated mom than to teen readers, but Bobby’s dad’s pain – and the guilt that Bobby feels at causing it – is definitely something that anyone who ever disappointed their parents can empathize with).

This is one of those books that you don’t exactly enjoy – it’s not entertaining and happy and something you can’t wait to read over and over – but it’s one that sticks with you, one that you keep thinking about, and that pops into your mind during random moments of the day. It’s beautifully written – the descriptions are spare but exquisite, and the emotion expressed is raw but always dignified. The love Bobby feels for his daughter shines through every line, as does his own fear that he will let her down, that he is not enough, that he won’t be able to do this “Dad” thing correctly. The scene from which the title is derived is so poignant it made me teary: “Things have to change. I’ve been thinking about it. Everything. And when Feather opens her eyes and looks up at me, I already know there’s change. But I figure if the world were really right, humans would live life backward and do the first part last. They’d be all knowing in the beginning and innocent in the end. Then everybody could end their life on their momma or daddy’s stomach in a warm room, waiting for the soft morning light.”

I also loved the characters, Bobby in particular. Because of the intensity of the first-person narration, the other characters aren’t fleshed out as much as supporting characters generally are. However, I think that that works with this novel – Bobby is 16 and in the midst of a massive life change, and all of his focus and energy are riveted on Feather and himself. Therefore, there isn’t room in the narrative for a lot of development of ancillary characters. Bobby is extremely strong, especially considering everything that is happening in his life. Johnson has built a character that explores stereotypes of African-American teens, examining them through Bobby’s friends and his relationships with them as well as through Bobby himself. Bobby plays basketball and gets in trouble for creating street art (adult authority types call it graffiti), but he also is part of a strong, loving family and is determined to provide that for his daughter as well.
Another plus for this book is its very accurate portrayal of what it’s like to be a new parent. Bobby is so exhausted he’s barely functional, he’s lonely, cut off from everything he enjoyed before, and, while he loves Feather, he’s sometimes resentful of everything he’s lost. The reality of the situation is not romanticized – I’m still a new enough parent to remember the feeling that I was going to literally die from sleep deprivation, and I had more help than Bobby gets.

My one real qualm with this novel derives, however, from that goal of presenting the reality of teenage parenting realistically. Toward the end of the story, the readers discover what happened when Feather was born that changes Bobby’s mind about his plans for adoption. It is harrowing and tragic, but it almost pushes the cautionary part of the tale a little too far. The novel becomes almost “back to school special”-ish in its warnings about the possible serious consequences of teenage sex and pregnancy. It’s not enough to totally derail the work, but it did strain my suspension of disbelief a little, and was the one weak note in this otherwise magnificent piece.
I would not hesitate in recommending The First Part Last to any teen, middle or high school level. The subject matter – teen sex and pregnancy – is a little older, but there are no explicit scenes in it, and the problem with waiting until teens are older to discuss matters of sex and sexuality is that it’s really easy to wait too long. I would not hesitate to use this book in my classes, and, though it’s a relatively short work, it gives a reader a lot to think about.


  1. I haven't read this one yet. But I hope to soon. Have you read Heaven or Sweet, Hereafter?

  2. I haven't, yet. Are they similar in theme to this one? Thanks for the recs :)