A GIRL GROWS UP AS THE WORLD CRASHES DOWN AROUND HER
When news broke last year of a new Judy Blume book, excitement was high. It would be Blume’s first adult novel in 17 years, and only the fourth she’s ever written. She’s better known for almost 30 YA and children’s titles, guidebooks to growing up for generations the world over, the most famous of which is likely Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret.
In this captivating new book, In the Unlikely Event, Blume wraps her story around seemingly unbelievable, yet true, incidents: over the course of three months, an astounding three planes all crashed into Blume’s hometown of Elizabeth, N.J. in the early 1950s.
It’s not surprising we’re fascinated with airplane crashes. There’s a drama inherent in them — the plummet to earth; their often grand scale; even, perhaps, the notion (however illogical) of a comeuppance of sorts for the arrogance of humans attempting to defy gravity.
But Blume doesn’t turn this into an action-packed adventure focused on a disaster (or three), letting scenes of “fire and smoke, and death” overwhelm her narrative. Instead, it’s a riveting multi-generation tale, and the theme at work is that of life as a journey, one filled with all sorts of unlikely events, large and small.
As the book opens, 15-year-old Miri Ammerman, smart, curious, is on the cusp of adulthood. She’s the only child of a single mother, Rusty, a Rita Hayworth lookalike who got pregnant while still in high school and has saved all her love for Miri ever since. Or has she? Miri, meanwhile, is a happy kid for the most part, even if she does occasionally wonder who her father is — he’s been a no-go topic for as long as she can remember. Miri and Rusty live upstairs from Rusty’s widowed mother, Irene, and brother, Henry, who writes for the local paper and lands his first front-page scoop when he and Miri witness the earliest disaster.
Along with the Ammermans, Blume gives voice to a multitude of other characters, allowing us a peek into their lives — and the secrets they keep. The result is an illuminating kaleidoscope of impressions of those short but dramatic months. No matter how brief these tiny glimpses are — and some characters only get a chapter or two — it’s a testament to Blume’s skill that the effect they have upon us is so haunting.
Blume evokes adult life crashing in on Miri just as she does the planes crashing down on Elizabeth. Miri wonders, “Were adults ever honest with kids? They lived in a world where children, even teenagers were protected from the truth for their own good.” Rusty does her best to guide Miri, but while teaching her phrases like “I’m sorry for your loss,” may help her navigate rituals of the adult world, there’s no way to ease her through the heartache of first love.
Miri’s best friend, Natalie, stands as a forlorn counterpoint to Miri. Even though she doesn’t see the accidents first-hand, Nadine is traumatized. Words of wisdom cannot rally her. She’s convinced she’s possessed by one of the victims, a vibrant young dancer named Ruby Granik, and her belief sets her apart, dividing the friends when they need each other most.
Just as the catastrophes frame the story, they serve as a catalyst to a multitude of changes in the lives of Elizabeth’s residents. Blume captures the fickleness of fate — and the all-too-human fumbling in dealing with that — with an ease that matches the way she captures the out-of-control sensation Ruby feels as the plane she’s on hurtles to the ground. Anyone who’s been in an accident will find the feeling sickeningly familiar: “For seven horrible minutes, seven minutes that felt like hours, years, a whole lifetime, everything seemed to be in slow motion.”
For those on the ground as well as in the planes, the uncertainties of life are made starkly clear. And young or old, the truth becomes something that must be faced as surely as planes falling from the sky. “If she’d once thought being in love could fix anything,” Miri realizes, “she didn’t anymore.”