Study Guide

The First Part Last Setting

By Angela Johnson


New York City

Almost the whole of the novel takes place in New York City, a place that Bobby thinks is the best. He loves everything about this city—his neighborhood, Central Park, and especially the hustle and bustle.

But as much as Bobby loves the city, the majority of the story unfolds in small indoor spaces. Think: Bobby's room, Feather's crib, the train, a well-loved pizza place, a street corner. These places have far more significance to the plot than the city that contains them; the grandiosity of New York doesn't really pop in any of the truly significant and poignant scenes. Which brings us to a question: Why do the important scenes all take place in small spaces?

Here's what we're thinking: because the novel is so intimate and reflective. As much as Bobby says he loves the city, it isn't what he's focused on—he concentrates on Nia, his friends, and, most importantly, his daughter. In other words, Bobby cares about connecting, not getting swept up into the anonymity of New York City.

The intimacy of these spaces facilitates some of Bobby's most meaningful thoughts, too. He realizes how much he loves Feather as he holds her in his room, for instance, and he and Nia talk about adoption in a stair well. In his babysitter's apartment, it strikes Bobby how young he is. So even though Bobby says time and again how much he loves New York and how much he'll miss it when he moves, the novel really depends on small spaces where Bobby interacts closely with the people who matter most in his life.

And this is one reason that Heaven, Ohio, sounds so attractive to Bobby. When his dad asks what Bobby thinks about Heaven, Ohio, Bobby admits to himself:

Maybe I'll just tell him how I don't think I'll make it if I stay here. In this place. In this state. (30.10)

New York City is too big. Bobby is dealing with so much big stuff—namely growing up over night and becoming a single father in the blink of an eye—that what he needs now is for everything else to get smaller, more manageable. And the Big Apple just isn't bite-sized. In the end, the novel is really about Bobby seeking a place that will fit his and Feather's needs, and Heaven, Ohio, which is "out of some old postcard" (31.6), fits the bill. It's a smaller, more manageable place for Bobby to figure out how to stretch into this next chapter of his life.

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