While these days flying on an airplane has become as common as riding a bus (and often as enjoyable), flights 60 years ago didn’t have the same odds of successfully reaching their destinations. In her fourth novel for adults, author Judy Blume mines her own experience to write about three “unlikely events” and their effect on a small community in New Jersey.
Blume grew up in Elizabeth, N.J., a stone’s throw from the airport in Newark and the site of three airplane crashes that took place during the winter of 1951-52. In this fictional retelling, Blume’s protagonist is approximately the same age Blume was when the crashes took place. There is a depth to the experience that may not have been so easily expressed without having lived through this unusual time.
Miri Ammerman is the only daughter of a single mother, Rusty. They live with Rusty’s mother and brother in Elizabeth, where, despite her large group of friends, Miri feels a certain alienation by being the only girl without a father. Nevertheless, in December 1951, the feel of the holidays is in the air and Miri’s mind is on celebrating. Miri’s family is Jewish, and her friends celebrate Hannukah and Christmas. Her 15th birthday is only a month away and she has been keeping an eye out for the boy of her dreams.
Then, the shock of a plane crashing in her town and killing all of its passengers not only upsets Miri’s own psyche but the equilibrium of the entire community. A second crash, a little over a month later, kills not only the passengers but people on the ground as well. An unbelievable third crash not even a month after the second results in even more death and destruction, and temporarily shuts down Newark Airport.
Among the remains, the reader sees that the unremarkable community that it meets in the first few pages of the novel is not as innocent as it may seem. Using the technique of multiple storytellers — “In the Unlikely Event” has at least 15 voices — Blume explores infidelity, anorexia, mental illness, the underworld of Jewish mobsters and abusive relationships.
In Miri, Blume deftly exposes the inner life of a teenage girl during the 1950s — and not the sanitized version so often portrayed.
“In the Unlikely Event” integrates Blume’s acclaimed observation of the teenage experience with intimate knowledge of an unusual series of events, making it a page-turner with cross-generational appeal.
Meganne Fabrega is a member of the National Book Critics Circle. She lives in New Hampshire.
IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT
By: Judy Blume.
Publisher: Alfred A. Knopf, 402 pages, $27.95.
Event: In conversation with Nancy Pearl, Pen Pals lecture series, Sept. 24-25, Hopkins Center for the Arts. Tickets will go on sale in August. www.supporthclib.org