The premise of Angela Johnson's novel, The First Part Last, seems to lend itself to the pulpit. A teen boy gets his girlfriend pregnant and she ends up in a vegetative coma after suffering a complication from the pregnancy. Yet this love story between teen father and daughter is no Sunday morning special.
Remember how at six you were sure your parents knew everything? How that had changed by the time you hit sixteen? As much as parents would like their teens to listen to them, the truth of the matter is that adults don't know everything. Few things in life are clearly black and white, and one way that Johnson avoids preaching is by making even Bobby's parents unsure of what to do. After Bobby is arrested for graffiti, his mother takes him and baby Feather to live with his father. But after moving them there, “she got back into her Jeep and sat there without turning on the ignition” (Johnson 101), illustrating her own uncertainty about her choice.
Bobby's peers don't preach, for they don't know what to do, either. When Bobby first tells K-Boy and J.L. his news, they both laugh at him, even making jokes at first. Bobby's example isn't allowed to be a lesson to his friends, either:
Two girls pass by us and stare at K-Boy. I mean they stop in the middle of the sidewalk and stare. He smiles back.
I grab him by the arm. “Uh huh, they are so fine, but not today.” (Johnson 39)
That's as far as any “conversion” goes. Bobby knows his peers will continue to have sex and doesn't ask for any abstinence beyond that one day.
Leaving the parents and friends lost in the mist of what to do lets Bobby make choices different than what might commonly be suggested for someone in his situation. When Nia ends up in a coma, Bobby decides to keep their baby. A social worker tries briefly to intervene but Bobby responds, “No, I don't know anything about raising a kid. I'm sixteen and none of those people on the wall look like the kind of family me and Feather's gonna be. But I'm doing it” (124). Nia's parents tell him they'll support his decision but Bobby's observations make it clear they won't really be involved: “[W]hen they looked at the baby through the nursery glass, it was like they were saying good-bye” (Johnson 126). No outside force pressures Bobby into this choice. It could be argued that his choice is didactic as well, just against what is commonly accepted, but apart from the previously quoted outburst, Bobby doesn't extol his decision.
Perhaps the ultimate in “preachy” factors, even God is left out as an authority. The only time God is mentioned at all is when Nia first enters her coma:
The whacked part was I didn't start trying to make a deal with God till I was almost running through the doors. And when I see my mom's face I know I got to catch up.
So I start begging.
I say how it's supposed to work out 'cause we thought about it. We made a mistake but we aren't stupid. We were going to do the right thing.
Then I guess I start babbling about how Nia looks when she sleeps and how she smiles and eats and laughs, but I have to stop 'cause even though I don't think about God or go to church, maybe this isn't the way you make deals with him.
Maybe he doesn't listen if you scare everybody in the emergency room and hold on to your mom that tight while you're screaming and crying more than you ever have in your whole life. (Johnson 120)
However, this moment doesn't cause Bobby to have a spiritual revelation. He doesn't develop a relationship with God, nor does he blame God for his troubles or reflect on what sins (even the seemingly obvious) might have caused this fury. He doesn't even refer to the Almighty with caps, using he instead of He. The focus of this hospital scene isn't judgment or right versus wrong but simply Bobby's pain at the loss of Nia.
Johnson neither glorifies nor attacks teen parenthood but successfully pulls off a mixture of the sweet and sour. For example, she tempers harsh reality with humor, as in Bobby's mother's rules for him about baby Feather's care:
If she hollers, she is mine.
If she needs to be changed, she is always mine.
In the dictionary next to “sitter,” there is not a picture of Grandma.
It's time to grow up.
Too late, you're out of time. Be a grown-up. (Johnson 14)
Johnson also is careful to balance the fear of emergency room visits, the smell of spit-up, and the sleepless nights with the warmth of Feather, her sweet new baby smell, and realizations such as these: “I know something about this little thing that is my baby. I know that she needs me. I know what she does when she just needs me” (Johnson 15).
Some situations are hard to express in words, and keeping complicated issues as simple as possible also helps Johnson avoid donning the clergy robe. For example, Johnson leaves the part where Nia actually tells Bobby she's pregnant “off screen”, choosing to show only this:
...Nia was waiting on our stoop for me with a red balloon. Just sittin' there with a balloon, looking all lost. I'll never forget that look and how her voice shook when she said, “Bobby, I've got something to tell you.”
Then she handed me the balloon. (Johnson 6)
Johnson thus avoids complicated and perhaps preachy discussions about exactly how this happened, whether they should/could/would have done something earlier, etc. Another technique Johnson uses that emphasizes the difficulties of the situation without preaching is having Bobby himself avoid thinking about it. At the obstetrician's office, for example, Bobby says, “I look at the skiing trophies and think about how cool and windy it must be to go down the slopes, and how I always wanted to learn how to ski” (Johnson 28).
The First Part Last is not without somewhat didactic moments, including this lecture:
I waited to hear how they'd been talking to me for years about this. How we all talked about respect and responsibility. How [my father] and me had taken the ferry out to Staten Island and talked about sex, to and from the island. And didn't we go together and get the condoms? What the hell about those pamphlets [my mother] put beside my bed about STDs and teenage pregnancy?
How did this happen? Where was my head? Where was my sense? What the hell were we going to do?
And then, not moving and still quiet, my pops just starts to cry. (Johnson 12-13)
Yet this is the only lecture and notice how the protagonist lectures himself and that the attitude is one of regret but not of shame.
There is also a “preacher” of sorts, who asks Bobby to consider what it means to be a man. But Johnson avoids being didactic here by twisting the traditional. Her “preacher,” “Just Frank,” lives his life “hanging on the corner, drinking forties at ten in the morning” (Johnson 7). Meanwhile, Bobby's teacher, the stereotypical helper, turns out to be no help at all but “just hopes [Bobby is] getting help” (44).
Having played in the gray for the entire novel, Johnson doesn't tie everything up in a nice lesson at the conclusion but ends with uncertainty as well. After moving to Ohio to raise Feather alone, Bobby won't tell about saying good-bye or the places in the city he misses but says, “I can tell you how it feels sitting in the window with Feather pointing out the creek that rolls past our backyard. I can tell you how it is to feel as brand new as my daughter even though I don't know what comes next in this place called Heaven” (Johnson 131).
The secret then, is to play in the gray. All this uncertainty means Johnson avoids a didactic message. Ironically, the novel still illustrates what many of its didactic equivalents attempt to portray: the hardships of teen pregnancy. But because of the gray, the messages are many and more than just messages. Bobby says, “I've never been closer to or loved anybody more than I love Feather” (Johnson 95) but what is love? What does it mean to be a family? What is success, what does it mean to be a man? These conversation starters are seeds for discussion and, through such discussion, personal growth for the reader.
Ashley. “Subversively Didactic.” The Cambridge Children's Literature Students' Blog. Blogger.com, 28 August 2012. Web. 27 March 2014. <http://cambridgechildrenslit.blogspot.com/2012/08/subversively-didactic.html>
Johnson, Angela. The First Part Last. New York: Simon & Schuster, 2003. Print.