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Thursday, February 04, 2010

The First Part Last Unique, Tender, Touching

If there's anything girls need more in their lives than a devoted father, I don't know what it is. How do I know this? Because I have one. As do my girls. There's just something about the bond between fathers and their daughters. Something unique. Something special.

My youngest daughter will grow up not knowing her birth father, but she'll know her real father. The one who snuggles her close, tickles her belly, and tells her every day how smart and beautiful she is. The one who looks nothing like her, who had no part in creating her sweet little features, but who adores every inch of her. Maybe someday she'll meet the man who helped give her life, maybe not. Regardless, she'll always have her dad - the man who's endowing her with confidence, joy and happiness. The man who just can't get enough of his bright-eyed, brown-skinned, curly-haired baby girl.

Why do fathers, especially black fathers, get such a bad rap? You've no doubt heard of The Absent Black Father - it's a cliche, but a prevalent one. I definitely know guys who seem to be doing everything they possibly can to uphold the stereotype, but I also know there are hundreds of thousands of good, supportive, present black dads out there. So, when a book like Angela Johnson's The First Part Last comes along (actually, it came along back in 2003), I get excited. Smashing through stereotypes in an honest, realistic, even touching way is a good thing. In this case, a very, very good thing.

Bobby's a typical teenaged city boy - he likes nothing better than hanging out at the arcade, scarfing down a slice at Mineo's, and playing hoops with his friends. On the day he turns 16, his girlfriend's announcement changes everything: She's pregnant. Bobby's not stupid - he knows about birth control, knows only a fool gets stuck like this. Yet, there it is. Nia's a basket case, vacillating between anger, guilt and shame. Bobby doesn't know what to do. He only knows that he will do right by his girl, and by his unborn baby.

The story alternates between Now and Then. In the Then, Bobby's a scared, confused boy who doesn't know how to deal with Nia's pregnancy. In the Now, he's a single dad juggling bottles, diapers, homework, and well-baby visits. He hardly knows who he is anymore. Saddled with the weight of responsibility, he misses his carefree childhood. He misses himself. The fact is, he's terrified:

This little thing with the perfect face and hands doing nothing but counting on me. And me wanting nothing else but to run crying into my own mom's room and have her do the whole thing.

It's not going to happen, and my heart aches as I straighten out her hands and trace the delicate lines. Then kiss them. Her hands are translucent and warm. Baby hands. Warm, sweet-smelling baby hands. And all I can do is kiss them and pull her closer so she won't see my face and how scared I am (15).

All Bobby knows is that when he looks at baby Feather, his insides turn to warm honey. He can't give her up, he can't let her down. Despite all the exhaustion, all the worry, all the mistakes, he knows only one thing:

Afterward I always kiss her, my baby, and look into her clear eyes that know everything about me, and want me to be her daddy anyway (81).

Johnson does a whole lot of things in this book to create a uniquely powerful story. First, she tells a familiar tale from a new perspective. Then, she deals with the issue honestly - she doesn't glamorize teenage parenthood for a second, but she allows that a young black father just might be able to do it with some success. She doesn't preach - both abortion and adoption come up in the story - she simply shows the consequences of choices made. Most importantly, she paints a very realistic portrait of teenage parenthood without sentimentalizing. Except when she does. Johnson's tactic is brilliant, perfectly reflecting what every parent goes through when dealing with the reality of a screaming, pooping, barfing baby. The reality's not pretty, but then the baby smiles, and suddenly, it's worth every second.

I've watched my husband cradle both of my daughters in his big hands. I've seen him press their soft faces into his strong chest. That father/daughter bond - so precious, so tender - is why I sniffed through all 131 pages of The First Part Last. It moved me in a way few books have. Whether you are - like me - an avowed daddy's girl or a father who adores his girls or a woman who just needs to believe it's possible, this book is for you.

Note: I didn't realize this when I picked up The First Part Last, but it's actually a prequel to Johnson's Coretta Scott King Award-winning novel, Heaven (which I'm putting on hold at my library now).

Grade: A

If this were a movie, it would be rated: PG-13 for language and mature themes/situations

To the FTC, with love: Another library


  1. I loved this one too, but didn't know there was a sequel! YEAH!

  2. This sounds like a really touching and unique novel. :)


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