In Blume's latest and possibly final novel, three plane crashes leave a lasting impact.
In The Unlikely EventLength: 402 pages
Author: Judy Blume
Publication date: 2015-06
In the Spring of 1975, my fourth grade teacher took me to see Judy Blume. I was an anxious child, already seeking solace in books. Noticing this, my teacher was especially gentle with me. To see Blume in her company was an unforgettable occasion.
In a packed school gymnasium, Blume feigned nervousness as she walked onstage, ducking at our applause. She patiently answered our childish, excited questions, including mine about whether she’d illustrated Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing. I knew she had not. I just longed to speak to my idol and couldn’t come up with a more intelligent question.
Fast forward 40 years. Blume has maintained a steady writing output, including a successful foray into adult works. I grew from an anxious, bookish child into an anxious, bookish adult. In Spring 2015, I saw Blume speak again, this time in a high school auditorium. It was packed with women like me: once adoring youngsters, now middle-aged. (Are you there, God? I’m having a hot flash.) My beloved teacher is deceased. Judy Blume is 77 years old. She still patiently answered our childish, excited questions, though this time I held my tongue.
Then as now, the publication of a new Blume novel is an occasion. In The Unlikely Event is Blume’s fourth book for adults, and she says, her last.
Over a six period in 1951-52, three planes lifted off from New Jersey’s Newark Airport, crashing moments later in suburban Elizabeth, where the adolescent Blume lived with her family. Her father, a dentist, was called in to help identify passenger remains. Yet even as families lost relatives and people found wreckage in their yards, Elizabeth’s teenagers were told to forget what they’d seen. It was the '50s, a time to have fun, to be happy, to forget the past.
Blume never forgot. In The Unlikely Event features a tightly-knit postwar community of characters centering on the Ammermans: the widowed matriarch Irene, her adult children, Henry and Rusty, and Rusty’s adolescent daughter, Miri.
Blume’s earlier writing, with its themes of mixed marriage, religious doubt, and teenaged sexuality often drew the attention of censors. Blume, in response, became a free speech advocate. But the controversial nature of books like Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret or the sexually graphic, adulterous Wifey are nowhere in evidence here. Instead, In The Unlikely Event is all '50s-era innocence as characters pour glasses of Harvey’s Bristol Cream and slow dance to Nat King Cole.
Of course, with naïveté comes heaping doses of anxiety, secrecy, and shame. One character’s mother forbids her from using tampons before marriage: "It could spoil you." Miri’s questions about her unknown father are met with silence. When Miri’s friend Natalie has a party, her mother Corinne ensures the event, held in the family basement, is chaperoned.
"Don’t bother keeping track of the characters," Blume laughed the night I saw her. It isn’t difficult: the real action happens around 15-year-old Miri. Perhaps Blume is most comfortable writing from this vantage point. See Margaret, of Are You There God? It’s Me Margaret, Karen, of It’s Not The End of the World, Sally, of Starring Sally J. Freedman As Herself, Deenie, of the selfsame novel, and Forever’s Katherine, who at 18 is a little older than her literary sisters.
Miri is intelligent and charming, but her concerns are understandably adolescent. Slow dancing with handsome Mason McKittrick, Miri frets over whether Mason feels her Hidden Treasure Bra. After the third plane crash, she pens an inflammatory editorial for the student newspaper. Miri is then summoned to the principal’s office and nearly expelled.
Her conclusion? The three plane crashes are not the work of space aliens, communists, or just plain horrible coincidence. The 15-year-old writes: "Evidence points to a plot against the children of Elizabeth."
In an era when adults eagerly read books meant for younger audiences, it's becoming increasingly difficult to define the "adult" novel. Certainly linguistic choices, thematic concerns, and characterization are all factors. Miri’s concerns over first love, confusion over adult behaviors, and bewilderment over Natalie’s mental health, all couched in G-rated language, pull In The Unlikely Event toward the YA bookshelf.
The plane crashes stand in harsh contrast to the rest of the story. Infants and children perish; one little girl is horribly burned. The bereaved are depicted prostrate with shock, howling with inconsolable grief. Although the parents of Elizabeth meant well when encouraging their offspring to forget, they were misguided. Miri develops a lifelong fear of flying. Natalie Osner begins a protracted struggle with Anorexia.
Should you read In The Unlikely Event? That’s hard to say. As a woman who feels a great debt to Blume’s best work, I am loathe to criticize her now. The novel is tightly written, the large cast deftly managed. Blume’s at her best with telling details: that Harvey’s Bristol Cream; women’s half-slips and girdles; saddle shoes and Persian lamb jackets; the sex manual Love Without Fear and Salinger's Catcher In the Rye; and chafing dishes of spicy meatballs and brisket with horseradish.
If you’re looking for an undemanding trip back in time, go for it. But if you’re one of those women who remembers Margaret buying her grandmother a silver toothbrush, Karen sneeking pieces of mocha chocolate cake from the kitchen floor, and Deenie at cheerleading tryouts, and you haven’t read Blume since, perhaps better it's to let the past lie. Fondly.