The second book in the Heaven Trilogy, The First Part Last
is the 2003 young-adult novel written by American poet and author Angela Johnson. Set in contemporary New York, the story revolves around the teenage pregnancy of 16-year-old Bobby and Nia, two upper-middle-class African Americans. Divided into four parts with chapters alternating between “now” and “then,” the novel is told from the first-person perspective of Bobby, the father, as he deals with the birth of a daughter, Feather. When Nia contracts a potentially fatal condition called eclampsia after childbirth and falls into a coma, Bobby and Nia consider giving Feather up for adoption. However, Bobby decides that the best thing to do is raise Feather on his own. The First Part Last
has been called “brief, poetic and absolutely riveting” by School Library Journal
, and that “readers will only clamor for more” by Publishers Weekly
. In 2004, the novel won The Michael L. Printz Award for Excellence in Young Adult Literature, as well as the Coretta Scott King Award.
Narrated in the first-person perspective by Bobby, a 16-year-old African-American, the story begins in New York City. The “then” chapters lead up to Feather’s birth, while the “now” chapters take place in the present as Bobby deals with becoming a single parent. The two storylines combine in the final chapter. Bobby holds his first newborn daughter, Feather, in his arms. Nia Wilkins, Bobby’s girlfriend and mother of Feather, has been placed in a coma for reasons that will be explained at the end of the novel. As Bobby holds Feather, he recalls his friend Just Frank, who was murdered trying to shield a girl from an attack. Bobby also recalls the unpleasant memory of breaking the news of Nia’s pregnancy to his parents, Fred and Mary, and then to her parents, Mr. and Mrs. Wilkins. Bobby isn’t sure how to provide for Feather, but knows deep down that his mere presence is good enough.
He takes Feather to the pediatrician’s office and tells the doctor he is tired. Bobby recalls going to the obstetrician with Nia and showing interest in fatherhood, as well as his exuberance in being shot down by Nia. Feather becomes ill the next day, which stresses Bobby because Mary is out of town. Bobby takes Feather to neighbor Coco Fernandez’s house and sleeps while Coco watches the baby. Bobby recounts telling his best friends J.L. and K-Boy about Nia’s pregnancy and how numb they are to the news.
Bobby is caught sleeping in British Literature class and feels as if nobody understands his stressful situation. Bobby remembers Nia’s humongous appetite while pregnant and the time they made love in Nia’s room during her pregnancy. When Feather vomits on Bobby before school one day, Bobby knows he’ll be late if he stays and cleans it up. As a result, Bobby takes Feather to Coco’s house for the day. Bobby obtains spray paint and creates a gorgeous wall mural that expresses how he feels about life, Nia and Feather. Bobby recalls the time he played a prank on a schoolteacher with his friends, which was cut short by Nia being taken to the hospital. Bobby rushes to Nia and feels Feather kick in her stomach for the first time. Returning from his flashback, Bobby finds himself arrested for vandalism. Fred picks up Bobby from the police station, at which point Bobby realizes he must face the harsh realities of his life. He knows he must deal with a frustrated neighbor, upset mother, moody baby, and incapacitated lover.
Bobby recalls Nia’s parents wanting to send her away to complete her pregnancy elsewhere, which Bobby tells Nia to refuse. When Bobby’s brother Paul visits with his two children, Bobby and Paul enjoy a long walk together. Bobby professes his love of Feather. Paul explains that he lives in Heaven, Ohio. Bobby recalls attending a party during which Nia confesses she’s unready for motherhood. Following Bobby’s arrest, Bobby and Feather move in with Fred. Mary weeps when she drops Bobby and Feather off. Bobby remembers the time he and Nia considered putting Feather up for adoption and how their parents were both happy and sad about the idea. Bobby takes Feather to the babysitter’s house before attending school, where he cuts class early with J.L. and K-Boy to visit Nia at a nursing home. Later, Bobby picks up Feather, spots a letter on the table left by Paul, and tells Feather about Nia’s poor health. In the one chapter told from Nia’s perspective, she expresses her dream of becoming a balloonist and soaring away. She has no use for the dream now as she bleeds in bed with the belief she is dying.
Bobby tells Feather that he visited Nia’s nursing home earlier in the day. Bobby explains to Feather that Nia is in a coma with brain damage. Bobby also confesses that when Nia slipped into a coma, Bobby refused to sign the adoption papers and give Feather away. A much more descriptive version of Nia’s condition is given in the end. When Bobby rushes to the hospital when hearing Nia’s had an emergency, it is revealed that Nia contracted a life-threatening condition called eclampsia during childbirth. Nia’s condition is likely to keep her in a coma indefinitely. When Bobby meets Feather for the first time, he vows to never give her up for adoption. Bobby knows he must become a father. At the end of the novel, Bobby realizes that he cannot stay in New York and raise a child alone. As a result, Bobby and Feather move near his brother Paul in Heaven, Ohio. While it’s extremely difficult to say goodbye to his girlfriend and mother of his child, as well as the city he grew up in, Bobby knows that he’s made the best decision for him and his baby daughter.