Behind You–Jacqueline Woodson (2010)

Woodson, Jacqueline.  Behind You.  Speak, 2010.  160p.  Grades 6-12.  Realistic Fiction. 

As the sequel to If You Come Softly (Woodson’s retelling of Romeo and Juliet), this novel revisits all the characters impacted by the death of Jeremiah Roselind—his girlfriend Ellie, teammate Kennedy, best friend Carlton, and his separated parents—as they are trying to piece their lives back together and deal with their overwhelming grief.  With its shifting perspectives and lyrical tone, Behind You concludes the tale of both the survivors and the loved one who died by presenting an ultimately hopeful world where those we love are never truly lost to us.

Thoughts- I read this book immediately after finishing If You Come Softly, and despite hearing from my classmates and reading various reviews that it was a  “stand-alone,” I cannot really see what anyone would get from Behind You without reading its predecessor.  That being said, I found it to be quite different from the first book in structure, plot, and particularly in tone.  Structurally, Behind You adds more narrators into the mix rather than just Ellie and Jeremiah and does more with third-person narration.  It also has the unique perspective of a ghostly Jeremiah as he follows or is “behind” all those who mourn for him.  These additional narrative threads spread the story out quite a bit more than the tight world of teens and allow the reader to see into the minds of Jeremiah’s parents, a feature I found different than most YA novels and also (as a parent myself) particularly heart-wrenching.  This wider narrative focus also deviates from the initial plot of If You Come Softly in a significant way—it is less a straight-forward plot with the conventional rising action, climax, and denouement and more of a series of loosely collected portraits of grief that center around the characters’ shared loss.

For me, the biggest difference between the two books is the tone.  If You Come Softly is, until the very last pages, a story of first love filled with the excitement, happiness, tension, and over-whelming feelings of Ellie and Jeremiah.  Behind You is a much quieter, solemn book as befits a story about loss, grief, and healing.  I found it to be more authentic than its predecessor, primarily I think, because the storyline is less familiar and not so timeworn.  Many, many books end with someone dying; not a lot explore what that death does to those left behind.  Like Woodson’s other books, I can see this novel being immensely popular with young people, and I definitely think readers of If You Come Softly will want to know what happens after the abrupt ending of that book.  I whole-heartedly recommend Behind You…but I think everyone should read the other one first.

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