In the years before “Google it” became the answer to everything, acquiring new information meant overhearing it, asking someone about it, or reading a book. A mix of a desire to avoid conflict and a fear of somehow disappointing adults led me to embrace the books option; being a fifth grade girl with unrestricted access to the school library led me, more specifically, to Judy Blume. I was ten when I first discovered her. Her oldest book had been around for 26 years by that point, but her writing of the pains of growing up was no less relevant in the nineties than it had been in the sixties. Though I stopped reading her during junior high, I never lost my appreciation for what her writing had been to me in my preteen years.
Judy Blume’s last book for adults came out before I’d begun high school, so it didn’t cross my radar until years later. When I found out a few months ago that she was releasing another book for adults, I was immediately intrigued and checked it out as soon as the library’s copy arrived. This book is, in many ways, the archetypal Judy Blume book; from periods and crushes to sexual experimentation and shifting friendship loyalties, the book does what Judy Blume does best: it tells a story through characters we know well because they were us or our sister or our brother or our best friend.
She’d been careful about dating after high school, not wanting to get serious with some local boy who’d expect her to give up her dream for his, produce two babies, preferably one of each sex, wear an apron over her shirtwaist dress and have dinner on the table every night at 6 p.m. No thank you. There was a young doctor at the hospital but he was almost as dangerous as the others. If she confided her dream to him he’d drop her like a hot potato. Still, she went out with him, not that he had much time off, but she never told her mother. And sometimes, when their breaks coincided, they’d get into his car and kiss until the windows steamed up. She’d stop him when he tried to get his hand under her skirt. “Please,” he begged. “Just this once. I’m a doctor. Doesn’t that count for something?”
Ha! Gaby had a goal, and no doctor or anyone else was going to dissuade her. She knew there would be plenty of nurses for him to flirt with once she was out of the picture. Nurses who would let him get under their skirts.
– page 223
In December of 1951, Judy Blume was a teenager growing up in the small town of Elizabeth, New Jersey; that month saw the first of three plane crashes – inside of eight weeks – that would earn Elizabeth the nickname “Plane Crash City.” The tragedies and ensuing uncertainty set the backdrop for Judy Blume’s most recent novel, In the Unlikely Event, in which we follow fifteen year old Miri Ammerman and her friends, family, and community through the months following the crashes.
Once, when Miri was in sixth grade, she’d tried asking Rusty, “So this father of mine…. is he alive or dead?”
The color had drained out of Rusty’s face. “I don’t know.”
“Come one, Mom…”
“Honestly, Miri, I don’t know.”
“Were you married to him?”
“That’s a hard question to answer.”
“Either you were or you weren’t.”
“I said that’s a hard question to answer, Miri.”
“I just want to know if I’m a bastard or not.”
Rusty exploded. “Don’t ever let me hear you using that word! That word has nothing to do with you.” Then she choked up. “You were loved from the moment you were born.” That was the last time Miri asked her mother about her father. Because what was the point? At least no one said he was a no-good son of a bitch, the way she’d heard Cousin Belle describe her daughter’s husband. They didn’t say anything, which in a way was worse.
– page 57
Miri lives with her mother Rusty in the apartment upstairs from her grandmother Irene and Uncle Henry. Across the several months of the story we watch Miri grapple not only with the effects of living through the crashes that hit her small town, but also with all the things that being young involve: first love, evolving friendships, slow and often hard-won self-actualization, and an assortment of strong opinions, fears, and emotions.
The novel is broken up into four parts (plus a prologue and epilogue), each comprised of several chapters; each chapter is broken into sections told from a given character’s perspective. Many characters take turns in this – some we see for only one or two sections, and some come back repeatedly across all four parts of the novel; Blume admits to having been concerned enough about the number of characters that she considered putting in a character chart, but her editor advised against it. In the end, the variety of voices from across different generations adds to the story enough that we don’t mind the first few dozen pages of flipping back and forth, trying to remember if a character is new or if we should know him from an earlier section (Blume advises readers not to fret and keep flipping the pages, but to rather keep reading and know it will come together).
He’d open the door to the house in Bayonne, the house where he and Estelle had raised their family, calling out, Stellie, honey, I’m home– but no one ran into his arms, no one slept curled around him, telling him every night before they went to sleep how much she loved him. Estelle was gone, gone forever. He wanted to believe he’d catch up with her on the other side, but he didn’t believe in the afterlife. It was all shit. Dead is dead. Dead and buried. All he had left was his memories and their children and grandchildren. He and Estelle had vowed long ago they would never become a burden to their children. The children had their own lives. And he wanted it that way.
– page 88
This is the first book Judy Blume has released in over a decade, and I am pleased to finally again be in her target age group. Utterly lacking in frills, the novel is an easy read — perfect for a rainy weekend or a few long days at a sunny park, whichever you prefer. Do yourself a favor and put a hold on the book the next time you come into the library — Blume’s In the Unlikely Event is every bit as good for the soul as was her first YA book you read however many decades ago.
In the Unlikely Event is available now at Greenville Public Library.