The Novels

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In Heaven and The First Part Last, Angela Johnson explores the meaning of family and of parent-child relationships. Heaven was published first, in 1998, and five years later, Johnson produced The First Part Last as a prequel.

In Heaven, fourteen-year-old Marley has it all. Heaven, Ohio—where Marley lives happily with Momma, Pops, and her brother, Butchy—is the essence of small-town bliss. It is quiet, safe, friendly, and traditional. Marley goes to school and enjoys spending time with her best friend, Shoogy Maple, whose family is “perfect.” Frequently, Marley’s parents send her to the store to wire money via Western Union to Pops’s twin brother, Jack. Uncle Jack writes Marley letters about his ramblings though the Midwest with his dog, Boy. Marley babysits for Feather Morris and becomes close friends with her father, Bobby, who lives above a frame shop in Heaven and paints billboards for a living. Sometimes Marley, Bobby, and Feather take Bobby’s car and visit Amish country. Bobby reveals that he identifies with the isolation of the Amish.

Suddenly, Marley’s tranquil world is shattered. A letter addressed to Monna Floyd arrives from a burned-out church in Alabama. The letter explains that records have been destroyed in the fire and need to be replaced. The letter reveals that Momma and Pops are not Marley’s biological parents. Jack is her father, and her real mother, Christine,...

(The entire section is 575 words.)


(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

Beram, Neil. Review of The First Part Last, by Angela Johnson. The Horn Book Magazine 79, no. 4 (July/August, 2003): 459. Emphasizes that the alternation between “Then” and “Now” chapters allows readers to journey with Bobby through the tragedies and challenges that confront him.

Hinton, KaaVonia M. Angela Johnson: Poetic Prose. Lanham, Md.: Scarecrow Press, 2006. This compendium of reviews, interviews, and critical commentaries analyzes Johnson’s insights into contemporary culture and the connections between her work and African American literary history.

Hinton-Johnson, KaaVonia M. “Angela Johnson: Award-Winning Novels and the Search for Self.” ALAN Review (Fall, 2006). Looks at the extent to which identity is represented as socially constructed and constantly changing in Johnson’s work.

Johnson, Angela. “The Booklist Interview: Angela Johnson.” Interview by Gillian Engberg. Booklist 100, no. 12 (February 15, 2004): 1074. Johnson reveals that characters drive her fiction.

Rochman, Hazel. Review of Heaven, by Angela Johnson. Booklist 95, no. 2 (September 15, 1998): 219. Sees kindness and love triumphing over deception in the novel.

Rosser, Claire. Review of The First Part Last, by Angela Johnson. Kliatt 37, no. 3 (May, 2003): 10. Praises Johnson for creating characters that readers care about and evoking strong emotions with few words.