In the Unlikely Event
Ask adults or adolescents what they know about Judy Blume and many will say Fudge. Blume’s Fudge series remains a classic although it was just one part of her 28 titles spanning four decades of award-winning books. The Fudge series chronicled the life of a nine-year old boy, Peter Hatcher, and his infuriating brother, Fudge. Judy Blume took you inside the minds of quirky kids who made you laugh out loud at their antics and ideas.
So the first thing you need to know about Judy Blume’s latest book, In the Unlikely Event, is that it is neither very funny nor Fudge-like. At just shy of 400 pages, the novel is really about the absolute worst possible series of tragic events that afflict the town of Elizabeth, New Jersey in the early 1950s.
Buckle your seat belts for this book. In fact, In the Unlikely Event should come with a disclaimer: If you have a fear of flying, read with caution. The book is fiction, but based around real events which took place in Elizabeth, New Jersey, over six decades ago when a series of airplane crashes—three to be exact over a short period of time—shattered lives and left deep scars on that city.
Blume, who grew up in Elizabeth was in eighth grade at the time of the actual triple disaster. But beyond the fact that airplanes truly dropped from the sky in 1951 and 1952, the book’s characters and events are, by Blume’s own admission, products of her imagination and memories.
The book opens in 1987 with Miri Ammerman returning to her hometown of Elizabeth 35 years after that tragic succession of airplane crashes that marred her childhood. Within pages you are back in time with a 15-year-old Miri Ammerman—a wise Jewish girl whose world is about to implode—literally and figuratively.
Miri’s uncle, Henry Ammerman, is a journalist covering the airline story for the Elizabeth Daily Post, and it is through his dispatches that the reader learns most of the facts surrounding the airline events.
Blume uses a clever literary device of reprinting Henry Ammerman’s news stories at the beginning of various chapters to both explain the tragedies and, at times, to veer off course from the airline story. Henry covers ordinary news events that occur between the crashes—a subtle reminder that life goes on after catastrophic events—until the next catastrophic event.
Miri and Henry Ammerman are main characters in Blume’s novel, but there are dozens of other characters—friends, family, and random strangers—whose lives intersect through the disaster. Each character is almost a mini-story within the novel, providing multiple perspectives on the same set of events in what feels, at times, like a Rorschach trauma test.
Indeed, trauma is the theme of In the Unlikely Event—a study in how individuals respond to loss. Everyone seems to be grieving in this book, including Miri whose boyfriend, Mason, disappoints her. “She hated that word. Breakup. It reminded her of Henry’s description of the third crash—Like a swollen cream puff that had broken apart. She felt as if she, too, had broken apart.”
Blume is clearly at her best when writing about teenagers like Miri and her friend, Natalie Osner. Miri idolizes Natalie and her up-scale family. “More than once Miri had allowed herself to fantasize being part of Natalie’s perfect family.
If Natalie’s mother died—not a gruesome, slow death, but something fast and dramatic, say a car crash—Natalie’s father could marry Miri’s mother, who was “young and beautiful and single.”
As the plot unfolds, Natalie Osner grows despondent. Traumatized by the airline crashes, Natalie comes to believe that one of the dead victims, Ruby, lives on inside her. “Right after fifth period algebra, Natalie took Miri aside in the girls’ room and said, ‘I have this buzzing inside my head . . . And when the buzzing stops, Ruby starts talking to me.’”
Poor Miri is left carrying the secret. “Natalie was her best friend. She had no choice but to swear she would never tell.”
Secrecy is the other theme of In the Unlikely Event, and Blume does a good job exposing the risks of secrets. Miri’s mother, Rusty, has secrets she keeps from her daughter, and Miri comes to have her own. “How could you keep such a secret from me,” Rusty asks at one point. “I’m your mother, for god’s sake. How could you betray me this way?”
Increasingly, Miri learns that people carry around thoughts and fears hidden from the world. “Sometimes Miri tried to imagine she, too, had a secret box on the top shelf of her closet, covered in burgundy velvet, a place to hide every hurt, every bad thought, every worry that she couldn’t do anything about.”
And therein lies the problem with In the Unlikely Event. The book makes you worry—worry about things and people you can’t do anything about. Nothing seems to go well for anyone. For a June book, you wish it had more of a light touch or a few more fairytale endings. You wish it had a bit more fudge.