WHEN Judy Blume was 15, growing up in a small town in New Jersey called Elizabeth, three planes departing from nearby Newark airport crashed directly into Elizabeth, with varying degrees of damage and loss of life but with equal impact and trauma on the locals each time. These plane crashes left such an impact on Blume that decades later, at the age of 77, she revisits them in her latest novel In the Unlikely Event — her first for adults in 17 years, and her last for adults she claims.
As the book opens, we meet 50-something Miri Ammerman, heading back home to Elizabeth for a memorial of the crashes. The majority of the book is a flashback to when Miri was a teenager, an exploration of a year in her life and that of those around her who were just as affected by the three horrific tragedies. Blume writes about the lives of a number of people in Elizabeth, most connected to each other in some way. She employs the voices of many characters, giving perfect little snapshots of their lives, along with articles from a local newspaper, pieces that fit together to make a larger, finely detailed picture of the community and Blume’s overarching narrative.
The short chapters move speedily between different points of view: Miri herself, her mother Rusty, a single parent working in the city to make ends meet, her uncle Henry, the reporter for the local newspaper who must investigate each crash in detail, her grandmother Irene, who is the heart of their family, and Miri’s first love, Mason, amongst others. Readers meet certain characters only briefly before they board their ill-fated flights, though their voices ring true, albeit for a short time. Blume is a masterful ventriloquist, with control over so many voices, so much so that sometimes it may even be hard to recall
certain connections between characters at the start — there really are so many points of view. But once you get to know the varied cast, it’s easy to see them as the unique individuals they are, though they all are also very Judy Blume-esqe. Ultimately, it doesn’t matter, because the characters work well together to create a sense of community and atmosphere, and a story that isn’t so much about one individual as it is about her world. This ‘her’ is Miri, the woman we start with and the teenager whose voice resonates the most, and whose emotions we are most vested in.
Fifteen-year-old Miri feels like the primary narrator, and you’d be hard pressed to find fault with Blume’s control of Miri’s voice — her adolescent experiences are so on point, so sensitive. Perhaps this is because Blume herself was 15 when the planes crashed in Elizabeth or perhaps because Blume just can’t go wrong with a teenage girl’s voice. Miri is bright, curious and essentially — like the best of Blume’s protagonists — good-hearted but entirely fallible. She is raised by her single mother, grandmother and uncle, each of whom is emotionally vested in her as she needs to have a loving, supportive family structure. It’s a slightly unconventional family structure for the time, but it works for Miri. It doesn’t mean that she has it easy or that she isn’t curious about her missing father though.
Miri’s best friend Natalie has what most would consider a perfect life — she’s the child of the wealthy and beloved local dentist Dr Osner (a character heavily based on Blume’s own father), she’s the centre of all her friends’ attention, with her cashmere sweater collection and her fashionable mother and helpful household staff. But though Natalie seems to have it all, she is the most vulnerable and is most affected by the crashes, imagining herself to be inhabited by Ruby, a dancer who died in one of the crashes. Natalie internalises her trauma, certain she has been given a different path in life and that she has to fulfil Ruby’s dream: she becomes obsessed with being a dancer, cuts herself off from her friends and stops eating. With her, Blume is also able to touch on trauma-related eating disorders in teenagers, something not well recognised in the ’50s.
Miri, of course, has to work her way through all this, along with her own fears and worries from having witnessed the plane crashes, as well as her new, exciting and frightening burgeoning relationship with Mason. Teenagers at her school find themselves reaching to conspiracy theories as to why each plane came down near where children would gather (near a playing field, a home for orphans, a girls’ school) and think up half-baked ideas about communism and politics to try and understand what’s going on. The truth, of course, is nowhere near as dramatic — each crash is simply an accident, however unlikely that may be. But then all of life, as Miri thinks, is a series of unlikely events.
In the Unlikely Event is also a finely detailed slice of life story of 1950s suburban small-town America. Many, many little touches and small details refine the bigger picture, add texture and create richness to the world Blume portrays, and one that may be fairly alien to many of her readers around the world. And it doesn’t matter if you’re not an American reader — so much of it will ring true, just as so much of Blume’s earlier work has with international readers.
Young girls all over the world know and love Blume’s books. No one else did what she did. No one else wrote about racism or awaiting puberty or the body horror of adolescent changes or the shock and loss and grief at losing at a parent in a violent death. No one else wrote so freely of things young adults felt before there was even a Young Adult genre. More importantly, no one but Blume wrote about family, friendship and love with the open, unbiased and non-judgmental sensitivity with which she wrote Deenie, Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, Then Again, Maybe I Won’t, Tiger Eyes or Forever, to name a few from her oeuvre.
Blume has been a fairy godmother to many young people, especially young women across generations, and her warmth and humanity have not faded. After selling 85 million books in over 30 languages, Blume has settled into a familiar yet entertaining Blume-esqe groove, in which In the Unlikley Event sits pretty. This is a warm and poignant story; one that is so very human, very true to her experience and that of many readers. The language is simple, the plot not even a plot as such — Blume hasn’t really ever been interested in fancy language or plotting acrobatics — she’s interested in presenting to her readers a portion of her characters’ lives, examining their emotions, and often charting their growth and agency as they come into themselves, or as they look back to who they once were. “It was the winter that changed our lives,” writes Blume about the time of the plane crashes, “The winter we learned who we were, and what we were made of”. And that’s what Blume’s books have always been able to do: help us see what we are made of.
In the Unlikely Event
By Judy Blume
Alfred A. Knopf, US