Themes and Meanings

(Literary Essentials: African American Literature)

In Heaven and The First Part Last, Johnson explores the meaning of family and alternative family structures. Unequipped for parenting and unprepared to go it alone, Bobby nonetheless finds himself managing the challenges of single fatherhood. Marley learns that she is adopted, having been abandoned by a father she perceives did not want her after her mother died tragically. Loving and being loved redeems both characters, teaching them that families are what people choose to make them. Bobby’s all-consuming love for Feather leads him to happiness redefined, while Marley learns that shared love, not shared blood, forges family bonds.

In both books, Johnson explores the notion that the harsh truths of the past may scar people, but their choices for the future can heal their wounds. Marley has to construct a new identity for herself, as does Bobby, and both characters behave bravely (albeit predictably) in doing so. Both Bobby and Marley want to do what is right, and they succeed after encountering some of false starts and misdirections that are the essence of growing up. Although Johnson’s characters are African American, their dilemmas, motivations, and actions are universal—crossing the bounds of time and ethnicity to appeal to teens of all colors and backgrounds.