If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson – A New York Setting – A Post A Day in May

I’ve had Jacqueline Woodson’s novel(la) If You Come Softly (published in 1998) on my piles for almost ten years. When I discovered her name on this year’s Women’s Prize For Fiction Longlist, I decided it was finally time to read it. I was a bit surprised to find her on that list, as I thought she only wrote books for Young Adults and I don’t seem to remember having seen any YA titles on the past lists. I suppose, one could also call Red at Bone a YA novel, as the protagonist is a young woman.

I know, a lot of people shy away from reading YA literature but that’s a real shame as one can find some of the most original writing under that label.

The epigraph to If You Come Softly and the title are taken from a poem by Audre Lorde

If you come as softly

as the wind within the trees

You may hear what I hear

See what sorrow sees

I couldn’t think of a better epigraph to set the tone and capture the mood of this beautiful, mournful book.

If You Come Softly tells the love story of Jeremiah and Ellie. They fall in love at first sight on their first day in their new private school. Ellie lives with her parents in a huge flat overlooking Central Park. Jeremiah is from Brooklyn. He too, is from a rich family. His dad is a famous film director, but nobody at his new school knows that. Nobody even thinks that Jeremiah’s family has money, they think he attends the expensive school because of a scholarship. Why would they think that, you may wonder? Because Jeremiah is black, and this school is mostly white. And so is Ellie who is white and Jewish.

These two young people couldn’t care less about the colour of their skin and, while they think it might be difficult to be together, they do not expect it to be this difficult.

This is a very short book and I’m still surprised it manages to be so deep. Love at first sight stories often don’t work but this one does. Woodson conveys the feelings so well. There’s something magical about Jeremiah’s and Ellie’s love. And it’s exactly that soft, mellow magic that stands in such stark contrast with the world these two live in.

Towards the end, when Jeremiah is on his way to visit Ellie, there’s a very short passage that punched me in the gut.

He hated lying to his father. Yes, he did go to Central Park, but it was to hang out with Ellie- to sit and talk with her for hours and hours.

“You be careful over there. No running.”

Ever since he was a little boy, his father had always warned him about running in white neighbourhoods. Once, when he was about ten, he had torn away from his father and taken off down Madison Avenue. When his father caught up to him, he grabbed Miah’s shoulder, Don’t you ever run in a white neighbourhood, he’d whispered fiercely, tears in his eyes. Then he had pulled Miah toward him. Ever.

I think this passage hit me so hard, because as a reader one instinctively understands, on a very visceral level, what it means: One senses how scary it must be to be a black person in a world where even running can be dangerous.

As I said before, this is a short book but it’s powerful and tightly written. You won’t find a superfluous word or passage. Only key scenes that manage to move and touch.

I can see why Jacqueline Woodson won so many awards. I’m pretty sure, I’ll read more of her. She might even become a favourite writer.

A word about the cover – Since I bought my book ten years ago, the cover I added, is the old cover. Sadly, they have changed it meanwhile. This one worked so well on so many levels.

18 thoughts on “If You Come Softly by Jacqueline Woodson – A New York Setting – A Post A Day in May

    • Some of these writers are amazing style wise or structure wise. They just try to give things a twist, be more innovative. Woodson‘s later books are less traditional. It is a tender book but packs a punch.

  1. It reminds me of If Beale Street Could Talk by James Baldwin, even if it’s a different story.

    That quote about running reminds me of an interview of Lilian Thuram. He said that he taught his sons never to talk back to a policeman, even if they’re right, even if they live in the 16th arrondissement of Paris. I think it’s awful to have to teach that to your children.

    • I haven’t read that Baldwin yet but it’s on my wish list.
      It’s so terrible to have to teach your kids something like this. That passage in the book shocked me also be Auge things haven’t really changed much since it’s publication over twenty years ago.

        • Hope you like the book and get to watch the movie too, Caroline. The movie is really wonderful. It depicts about some of the things you both discussed here, like not talking back to the policeman, and what happens when one does.

        • Hope you get to watch this movie and like it, Emma. It depicts some of the things you both discussed here, like not talking back to the policeman, and what happens when one does. The movie is beautiful and heartbreaking.

  2. Beautiful review, Caroline! Loved the Audre Lorde quote you shared and the passage from the book you have quoted. This looks like a beautiful book. I want to read, I want to read! 😁 Thanks for sharing your thoughts.

    • Thank you, Vishy. I think you would like this. It’s lovely. I read the whole Audre Lorde poem this is taken from and it’s stunning. I hope to read more of her.

    • I know and some of it is more than a little tedious but this is more about racism. And not all YA books are about love. Some are just marketed that way because the characters are young.

  3. I love this post, Caroline. Woodson is one of my favourite writers. My nephew recommended her ‘Locomotion’ after he relocated to the US from India. He was 8 then. The book made me weep so much, and it built a bridge between my nephew and myself. We spent many hours talking about the book. I read her ‘Red At The Bone’ this January, and I couldn’t wrap my head around how one can offer so much beauty and brevity at the same time. Thank you for writing about this book. I am adding it to my TBR. I am sure I would enjoy this. And I am glad to meet a fellow-YA-lover. Somebody asked me once how I could relate to young protagonists in the YA books. I couldn’t give an intelligent response then. However, in retrospect, I realise that that’s what books develop in us — to see life from several vantage points.

    The passage you have quoted also reminds me of Ta-Nehisi Coates’s ‘Between The World and Me’. Perhaps, you and I will like ‘Dear Martin’ by Nic Stone. I haven’t read that yet. Have you?

    • Thank you, Deepika. So nice to know you like her too. I can tell you what I like about YA literature. It doesn’t shy away from big themes like love, death, illness. And it dies it in a very honest, emotion way. I even began a blog only fir YA and kid’s literature. I’ll be reposting this and also have some catching up to do once May is over. I read many favourites before I started the blog and only rarely reviewed them here.
      Here’s the link
      https://whispersfromthestoryforest.wordpress.com/
      I haven’t read neither Ta-Nehisi Coates nor Nic Stone. I had a look at Dear Martin and that does sound like a book I would love. But I need to read The Hate U Give first, the one Vishy mentions.
      I will read more of Woodson. I liked this so much.

      • Thank you for sharing the link, Caroline. I love the name already. I am going to explore in a while. I love what you said about YA Literature. I agree with you through and through. In many ways, the books talk to the teenager in me as well. I make peace with myself. 😛 I haven’t read ‘Dear Martin’ and ‘The Hate U Give’ as well. I will start with the latter too first. I hope, maybe, we will exchange notes soon.

        • Thanks for following the blog. I’m glad you like the name. I hope to be more active soon. As I said, I’ll repost a few things from here, slightly reworded. Making peace with the teenager in us. I like that. It would be nice to compare notes on The Hate U give but I’m not sure when I will start it. I’ll read shorter books this month.

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