37 pages 1 hour read

Jacqueline Woodson

If You Come Softly

Fiction | Novel | YA | Published in 1998

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Summary and Study Guide


If You Come Softly is a work of young adult fiction written by Jacqueline Woodson in 1998. The novel tells the story of Ellie and Jeremiah, a young couple from New York City who finds love and connection across the boundaries of race.

Plot Summary

The novel begins with a prologue where Ellie wakes from dreaming about Jeremiah. Ellie tells her mother Marion that she dreamed about Jeremiah, and Marion tells Ellie to remember what she can. The rest of the novel takes place in a flashback, alternating between Ellie and Jeremiah’s points of view.

Jeremiah, a Black boy in Fort Greene, Brooklyn, feels good in his skin, but he grew up around different ideas of what it was to be Black. Everyone else’s thoughts echo through Jeremiah’s head, but he’s still unsure of who he is when he looks in the mirror. Ellie, a white girl from the Upper West Side of Manhattan, remembers the rainy day when she met Jeremiah. She walked home slowly from her first day at Percy Academy, thinking about the boy she crashed into in the hallway with a beautiful smile, hair, and face. Both Ellie and Jeremiah are noticeably affected by the encounter, but they keep their admiration a secret from their respective mothers.

Ellie is home alone when her older sister, Anne, calls from San Francisco and tells her about the Black boy she met. Anne is surprised and wants to protect Ellie from the pain and challenge of a relationship that is different. At basketball practice, Jeremiah observes the dynamics of the white and Black boys on Percy Academy’s team, and he remembers that girl in the hallway was also white. He feels foolish and dejected. Similarly, Ellie thinks about how naive she used to be about racism, and she wonders why there are no Black people in the spaces she and her family inhabit.

Ellie still hasn’t seen Jeremiah since the day they met in the hallway. One day, Jeremiah is transferred into her history class. Jeremiah finally asks for her name, and she writes it down for him. On the way home from school, Jeremiah meets up with his neighborhood friend Carlton. Jeremiah realizes he can ask Carlton about interracial relationships because Carlton’s mom is white, and his father is Black. Carlton assures Jeremiah that he is proof of this kind of relationship working.

Ellie and Jeremiah silently pine for each other and keep their interest in one another a secret from their parents. When Ellie comes upon Jeremiah in the hallway at school, they decide to cut class and walk to Central Park. Two white ladies passing by ask Ellie if she’s okay, and Jeremiah knows it’s because he’s with her. In the park, Jeremiah recites Audre Lorde’s poem “If You Come Softly.” Ellie wonders if Jeremiah has always been coming toward her and this moment, and they kiss.

When Jeremiah and Ellie begin their relationship officially, Jeremiah observes how they seem to go unnoticed by the people around them. Another student at Percy takes a photo of Ellie and Jeremiah on the steps of the school. Ellie remembers back to when Anne would talk to her about perfect love, and she hears a voice in her head telling her to take this moment with Jeremiah and run.

Ellie and Jeremiah meet at the New York Public Library in the snow. Outside, a Black woman gives them a strange look, and Ellie shares that she wishes the looks and reactions from other people would go away. Jeremiah explains that these reactions only end when their relationship ends. Ellie assures Jeremiah that she would still have chosen this relationship even if she had known how hard it was going to be.

As Jeremiah and his dad drive to the Hamptons, Jeremiah’s dad talks to him about how white people don’t see their whiteness, and Jeremiah worries about how his father will react to his relationship. Jeremiah asks his dad if he thinks there are any white people who do understand, and his dad replies that he hopes so. Marion shows Ellie the absent note she received from Percy and warns Ellie not to punish her for their complicated past. Over breakfast, Jeremiah’s dad wonders what’s going on in his son’s life. When Jeremiah tells his dad that he spends his time hanging out with school friends in Central Park, his dad warns him about running in a white neighborhood.

Before basketball practice, Jeremiah tells Ellie that he wants her to come to Brooklyn. When they get to Fort Greene, Jeremiah reveals that his mom, Nelia, is a well-known author, and his father is a filmmaker. When they arrive at Nelia’s house, she welcomes Ellie warmly. Throughout the winter, Ellie and Jeremiah spend afternoons doing homework at Nelia’s and discussing their futures. Ellie is dreaming of new possibilities because of Jeremiah, but Jeremiah still doesn’t know what he sees in his future. Jeremiah wants to meet Ellie’s family, but Ellie is afraid of how they’ll react to him.

That afternoon, Jeremiah takes Ellie home, and she reveals that she’s going to tell her parents about him. Jeremiah is so excited that he cuts through the park instead of getting right on the train. Dribbling his basketball, Jeremiah is so consumed with his joy, he feels like he can fly, which keeps him from hearing the shouts of the police to stop. When Jeremiah keeps running, he suddenly feels a pain and is falling. He thinks of Ellie and his parents, already missing them. He feels a terrible sadness, and then feels nothing.

It is a snowy winter, and Ellie is at Jeremiah’s funeral, surrounded by faces that look like him. While his dad speaks, Ellie spots the picture of the herself and Jeremiah on the steps of Percy. Nelia sings a song about a sparrow watching over Jeremiah, and Ellie can picture that bird coming toward her.

Time moves on, and Ellie is almost 18. Her time at Percy is ending, and she’s preparing to head out to college. Still, she holds Jeremiah’s memory with her—with his memorial plaque at Percy, in the picture of the pair of them in her yearbook, and during the afternoons she spends with Nelia. Though the memories fade, Ellie thinks about how she can still remember the day she went home and told her parents about Jeremiah. She thinks about how time is always moving toward these moments, and then it moves on before you’re ready for it.