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Book Review: The First Thing and the Last by Allan G. Johnson

February 26, 2010

This debut novel by Allan G. Johnson (sociologist and author of Privilege, Power, and Difference and The Gender Knot) is a wonderful study of violent abuse and its effects on an individual’s mind, body, and spirit.

Johnson captures our attention and quickly immerses us in the horrors of Katherine Stuart’s abusive marriage. In the first section of the book, we are shown the insidious nature of spousal abuse through a narrative of Katherine’s courtship with and marriage to David Weston. This history is threaded alongside the terrible climax of their marriage, which ends in utter tragedy on the evening of Katherine’s birthday. From this wrenching beginning, the book turns through uncomfortable pages as Katherine dully exists in the aftermath of the epic violence of her marriage, until finally she is visited by Lucy Dudley, an elderly woman drawn to Katherine by the experience of a similar tragedy. Together, and ultimately joined by Lucy’s friends and family, the two women navigate a deepening relationship of mutual redemption.

Johnson, in his afterword, simply entitled “Thanks”, writes that this novel was “rejected more than fifty times by commercial publishers… [o]ver a period of seven years.” And this underscores a point I have to make about the publishing industry: while they assemble mass-market garbage and force it into the public consciousness with marketing campaigns and a certain monopoly on our attention, they reject manuscripts, such as The First Thing and the Last, that not only contain artistry, craft, and literary merit, but possess that rarest of qualities: bringing important social issues to the public’s attention through the telling of a compelling story. And more than that, The First Thing and the Last is a tale of redemption, of the human spirit’s courage and resiliency in the face of horrific abuse and terror, and ultimately illustrates the process of forgiving the seemingly unforgivable.

Shame on all of the publishers who, as Johnson relates, “openly acknowledged their unwillingness to publish a novel that tells the truth about domestic violence, no matter how compelling the story or how well it is told.” And shame on the corrupted spirit of capitalism that cultivates a civilization dependent on an economics of pandering and an unwillingness to discuss the uncomfortable realities of our shared lives.

Read this book. Savor it. Allow it to work on your spirit and body and mind as only a well-told tale of high morality and beauty can. Share this book with those you love and those you don’t; suggest it to everyone and share it widely. This is the kind of book that culture depends on, and by culture I mean a shared sense of responsibility, and I mean shared community: civilization in the truest sense of the word. To truly be human and to truly be civilized, our public life is in desperate need of more works of art like this one. Share this book and, in whatever way possible, encourage the publication of more like it.

Allan G. Johnson’s website:

Update: The First Thing and the Last is listed as one of 10 “Great Reads” for April in Oprah’s magazine.

Legal disclaimer: It has come to my attention that some nebulous “powers that be” insist that I fully disclose any remuneration I’ve received for writing this review, and that these same powers that be may consider the very uncorrected galley proof that I received from Johnson’s P.R. people such remuneration. So in order to dodge the possibility of being fined an excessive amount of money, let me state in no uncertain terms that I, Charles Dickey, received an uncorrected galley proof from SallyAnne McCartin & Associates.
3 Comments leave one →
  1. March 1, 2010 12:17 am

    Thanks. Plain View Press intentionally publishes work of high literary merit that speaks to the important issues of our time. Onward

  2. Helen Schilling permalink
    May 15, 2010 3:40 pm

    The best book I have ever read on the reality of domestic abuse, how severely it effects the victim, and the fact that the best help in overcoming it is thru the help of someone who has experiened the same pain and come away a stronger person.

  3. charlene Campbell permalink
    August 21, 2010 12:09 am

    I ordered this book after hearing an interview on NPR with Mr.Johnson-
    Read it in 3 days and it has left a lasting impression on me. The telling of the horror that Katharine went though at the hands of her husband sent chills down my spine…I agree that this should be passed to as many as will read it.

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