Woodson, Jacqueline. 1998. IF YOU COME SOFTLY. New York: G.P. Putnam’s Sons. ISBN 0399231129.
Two fifteen year olds, Jeremiah and Ellie, meet at school and immediately feel an attraction between them. Jeremiah, an African American, is the son of a famous movie director and author. Ellie is the daughter of a white, Jewish doctor. Drawn together through shared pain, Jeremiah’s parents are divorced and Ellie’s mother has abandoned her in the past, they recognize a kindred spirit in each other. Even as Jeremiah and Ellie enjoy their developing relationship, the two must face the opposition they feel from family, friends, and outsiders.
CRITICAL ANALYSIS (INCLUDING CULTURAL MARKERS)
Jacqueline Woodson draws from her own hardships in an interracial relationship with a Jewish woman to bring this story of new love to life. Both romantic and tragic, Jeremiah and Ellie’s relationship must stand up to the accusing looks and harsh words of strangers as they try to share the ordinarily commonplace teenage experience of dating. Woodson’s personal background lends an air of authenticity to this tale.
The author depicts the often unstated social rules that still govern much of American society. The teenagers’ relationship challenges many people’s ideas about so-called minority cultures. Woodson’s African American boy and white girl draw a lot of negative attention. Two elderly white ladies ask if Ellie is OK, just because she is walking with an African American boy. Later, a group of white boys shout racial slurs at the couple. Ellie’s reluctance to tell her parents about Jeremiah after her sister’s shocked reaction is an all too common occurrence for interracial couples.
Even though the young couple hides the relationship from Ellie’s parents, they are quite open with their affection in public. Their friends at school do not openly criticize, however many seem to turn around and pretend not to notice. Only Carlton, Jeremiah’s “home boy,” endorses the relationship and speaks kindly to the couple, presumably since he is a product of a biracial marriage. While Jeremiah and Ellie bravely struggle with hurtful comments when they are walking through the city, they soon discover a haven at Jeremiah’s mother’s house. Inside her beautiful and accepting home, the teenagers are free to enjoy each other’s company without prejudice. Woodson’s own experiences are shown in these scenes. The descriptions of African American culture and family are warm and moving.
Woodson offers accurate physical descriptions of her characters. Both Jeremiah and Ellie are realistically portrayed. In fact, Jeremiah’s “locks” and “smooth dark face” are some of the features that first attract Ellie to him. He, in turn, is mesmerized by her blue-gray eyes and smooth hair. Both teenagers enjoy looking at their interlocked white and brown fingers as they hold hands under the shady trees in Central Park. New York City is also depicted in detail, as the backdrop of Jeremiah and Ellie’s relationship. Descriptions of the various landmarks and boroughs further add to the richness of the story.
Language plays a part in the story, as well. The differences between Jeremiah’s casual language in Brooklyn and with his teammates and the more formal conversations in Ellie’s house subtly point to their conflicting cultures. When Carlton first meets Ellie, he uses a more formal register than when taunting Jeremiah into a basketball game, illustrating how some African Americans speak differently with the dominant culture than when at home.
The author’s use of cultural markers creates a believable and authentic love story. Jeremiah and Ellie are determined to withstand society’s prejudice and cruelty in order to be together. Even though Jeremiah and Ellie’s relationship has a tragic ending, Woodson’s young couple represents the hope that the future might be a more fair and accepting place where all cultures can live peacefully.
Publishers Weekly comments, “Once again, Woodson (I Hadn't Meant to Tell You This) handles delicate, even explosive subject matter with exceptional clarity, surety and depth…Both voices convincingly describe the couple's love-at-first-sight meeting and the gradual building of their trust. The intensity of their emotions will make hearts flutter, then ache as evidence mounts that Ellie's and Jeremiah's "perfect" love exists in a deeply flawed society. Even as Woodson's lyrical prose draws the audience into the tenderness of young love, her perceptive comments about race and racism will strike a chord with black readers and open the eyes of white readers.”
School Library Journal writes, “This fine author once again shows her gift for penning a novel that will ring true with young adults as it makes subtle comments on social situations.”
Reviews accessed at: http://www.amazon.com/You-Come-Softly-Jacqueline-Woodson/dp/0698118626
Other books written by Jacqueline Woodson:
COMING ON HOME SOON. ISBN 0399237488
FROM THE NOTEBOOKS OF MELANIN SUN. ISBN 0590458817
I HADN’T MEANT TO TELL YOU THIS. ISBN 0142405558
LOCOMOTION. ISBN 0142401498
MIRACLE’S BOYS. ISBN 0142406023
SHOW WAY. ISBN 0399237496
Submitted by Kim