Judy Blume is a well-known American author famous for novels such as Are You There God? It’s me Margaret, and Superfudge. I consider Blume to be the voice of my American, teenage girl upbringing. She’s both an uplifting yet incredibly honest writer; truly an inspiration to read then and now. So when I heard that Blume was writing again, my heart definitely skipped a few beats.
In Blume’s first adult novel in almost 20 years, In The Unlikely Event, we follow the worst year of Miri Ammerman’s life. Based on the actual events that occurred in the early 1950s of Blume’s own hometown of Elizabeth, New Jersey, the novel explores how three planes tumbling from the sky and crashing into Elizabeth changed the lives of not just those directly affected by the disasters but by all the inhabitants of the once quiet town.
Miri is 15 years old. She is the daughter of Rusty Ammerman but doesn’t know her father, and she’s about to fall in love for the first time with a young boy named Mason. Amidst the pre-Christmas shopping chaos, a plane speeds over Miri and Rusty as they leave the cinema, eventually landing in the river nearby, killing everyone on board. This catastrophic event will be the first of three that will change Miri’s life forever.
First it’s Miri’s best friend Natalie that begins to change for the worst. Natalie is strangely affected by the first crash, and then again by the second, then by the time the third crash comes around she is no longer herself. Natalie feels as if she now inhabits the essence of a dancer killed in the river crash named Ruby Granik. Natalie hears her voice, and those killed in the other crashes. She begins to become deeply obsessed with dancing and in the process becomes anorexic and incredibly ill.
The family and friendship dynamics of people in Miri’s life also begin to falter. From the loss of a young girl Miri used to babysit, Pamela, to the utter grief felt by Ben Sapphire after he loses his loving wife, the connections between everyone around Miri are no longer the same. Some people become incredibly disconnected, like Natalie and Mrs Barnes, and others hold on tighter to those around them, like Henry (Miri’s Uncle) and Miri herself. Throughout this horrible year, the town of Elizabeth protests against the airport because it continues to operate, only for it to finally be taken down after the three horrific crashes. In a time when flying in planes was new and finally affordable enough for the average American, the three crashes succeed in making only one thing clear; life is precarious. Irene, Miri’s grandmother, gives Miri advice on how to move forward through these events. She tells her that life goes on, and although Miri is so young she can barely understand that this may be the case, and cannot see the light at the end of the tunnel, it’s a lesson she tries her best to take into consideration.
In true Blume style, there is much more to this novel than just the storyline at the surface. We learn, along with Miri, about relationships, cheating, parenting, losing and gaining new friends, dealing with death head-on, and most importantly, about growing up. There are also specs of even more serious events going on, and these are revealed carefully throughout the novel as happenings that are kept secret for either good or bad reasons, but nonetheless they affect people in a myriad of ways. Daisy, for instance, is a young woman who works with Dr. O at his dental practice, is revealed to be missing certain female parts. Christina, who also works at the dental practice, falls in love with an Irish boy instead of a good Greek boy like her family intends for her. In a decade when these unavoidable things would have been unacceptable, it’s interesting to see Blume explore why and how secrets such as these were kept before it was seen as appropriate to make them public. The secrets that are weaved throughout In The Unlikely Event, then, are both indicative of the time and place of the novel but also point to our modern-day views and ask us, what do we think of them now?
The novel concludes with Miri returning to Elizabeth thirty-five years after that horrible year. We see her as a grown-up who has her own, new set of problems, but her existence as a child living through the year of plane crashes in what Americans began to call ‘Plane Crash City’ is still as relevant than ever. She is both herself and not herself upon her return, and we learn once and for all that life does go on.