In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume

In the Unlikley EventFor anyone who has lived through a national tragedy — Hurricane Katrina, the September 11 terrorist attacks, the shooting at Sandy Hook Elementary School in Newtown, Conn. — there’s a “secret club” no one willingly wants to be a part of: that of the survivors.

“Life goes on if you’re one of the lucky ones,” Judy Blume writes in the prologue of her new novel.

But the initial trauma and ongoing heartache?

“It’s still there, buried deep, a part of you.”

Such dormant uneasiness lies at the heart of  In the Unlikely Event — Blume’s fourth novel for adults, written 17 years after her third, Summer Sisters, was published to great acclaim in 1998. Set over the course of nine months from December of 1951 through August of 1952, the book unveils the shocking details surrounding three actual plane crashes that destroyed sections of Elizabeth, N.J., in just 58 days, killing 116 people aboard and on the ground.

Blume grew up in close-knit Elizabeth during the early Fifties, but the stories she tells in “In the Unlikely Event” don’t mirror those from her childhood. Instead, she weaves together snippets from the lives of more than 30 characters affected by the disasters — most of whom she insists are drawn from her imagination.

Keeping track of such an unwieldy cast of narrators is a bit bewildering, especially at first. But with perseverance, a protagonist thankfully emerges — and like Blume’s beloved teens of yesteryear (who can forget Katherine from Forever, Sally from Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, or Linda from Blubber?), ninth-grader Miri Ammerman is pure spunk, earnestness, and smarts. An only child and raised Jewish, she lives with her 33-year-old single mother, Rusty, in a two-family house upstairs from her Volupté-compact-selling grandmother, Irene, and uncle Henry, a reporter for The Elizabeth Daily Post.

For more than 40 years since the publication of her breakout Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret in 1970, the name Judy Blume has been synonymous with cutting-edge literature for kids and teens. She wrote openly about bullying, masturbation, the awkwardness of sex, and puberty before any author dared make the leap — and she did so in a way kids would understand and come to trust. So it should come as no surprise that the chapters devoted to Miri’s coming of age — her blooming romance with a handsome neighborhood boy named Mason (yes, there’s “necking” involved and concerns about “going all the way”); a surprise reunion with her birth father behind her mother’s back; a falling out with her best friend, Natalie, who develops an eating disorder and mental delusions following the first plane crash; and Miri’s struggle to make sense of what’s going on in a confusing and often scary adult world where “children, even teenagers, were protected from the truth for their own good” — are just as spot-on and enveloping as those obsessively dog-eared by readers of Blume’s earlier young adult and middle grade tomes.

The physical world beyond Miri’s inner thoughts is vividly rendered too. Blume begins each chapter with a clip from The Elizabeth Daily Post. With headlines like “Rosenbergs Get Passover Visit,” “Truce Teams Still Wrangle Over Korea; Tax Increases Loom,” and “A-Bomb Drill for Times Square,” details of significant historic events help set each scene and ground the swirling plot. And when mixed with Zenith 17-inch televisions showing the first televised Christmas tree lighting in Rockefeller Center, jukeboxes playing Nat King Cole’s “Unforgettable,” women’s fashions like Hidden Treasure bras and nylon tricot lingerie, and duck-and-cover drills at Elizabeth’s sex-segregated public high schools, a time capsuled portrait of cookie-cutter 1950s America in the early stages of the Cold War materializes.

Above all, In the Unlikely Event isn’t so much concerned with the downing of Miami Airlines non-scheduled flight C-46, American Airlines Flight 6780, or National Airlines Flight 101, but more with showing how the people of Elizabeth cope — or fail to — when the debris settles. Whether it’s Miri and her classmates’ speculations over the cause of the crashes (zombies? Martians? Commies? Sabotage?), Mason’s brother Jack’s secret marriage to his potentially pregnant girlfriend, or Natalie’s parents surprise divorce after the stress of events gets to be too much, Blume deftly demonstrates just how different the personal fallout from tragedy can turn out to be.

Perhaps a reflection of her own stage in life and of readers’ need for some sort of closure, Blume bookends the book with Miri’s journey back to Elizabeth 35 years later for a memorial commemorating the crashes. A morbid reunion, sure, but one that illustrates not just America’s obsession with “never forgetting” but our enduring ability to move forward. As Blume proves over and over again not just in “In the Unlikely Event” but in all of her fiction, life does go on in spite of hardship. We love. We lose. We fail. We may fall. But the lucky ones, we try our best to endure.


Originally ran in The Oregonian (June 10, 2015)

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