You know those conversations when a bunch of people (often English majors) confess what they are embarrassed not to have read? Remembrance of Things Past always makes the list (it’s #1 on mine), as do Ulysses (Zzzz) and The Canterbury Tales (which I never would have finished without the Cliffs’ Notes). Well, with apologies to the literary masters, this week I added Judy Blume to my list of authors I should have read.
Blume has been a force in American fiction for the last four decades. She is most renowned (and controversial) for her YA fiction, which tackles subjects parents dread – sex, obesity, racism, divorce, and more. She has written a few books for adults, with the same insistence for reality that characterizes her YA work. I was a bit old for her YA fiction in the 60s, and too snobbish in the 70s and 80s to read her adult fiction. In the Unlikely Event is my first Judy Blume book. It won’t be my last.
Judy Blume was raised in Elizabeth, New Jersey. Newark Airport was at the edge of town, so close that citizens sometimes saw faces in the windows of aircraft as they landed. In the space of about eight weeks in the early 50s, when Judy was fourteen, three aircraft literally crashed into the town of Elizabeth. Over a hundred people died. Her father was a dentist who helped identify the remains. Sixty years later Blume tapped her memories, not just of the accidents and their aftermath, but also the era in which they occurred. She has crafted all of it into a wonderful novel.
Blume tells her story mostly through her young characters and her sensibility for the psyche of the young is spot on. The adults in the story are also pitch perfect, as they struggle to quell the fears of their children and conceal their own fears and transgressions. Blume has a grand time using details of the period to ground us in the era. She captures the small thrill of slipping your feet into a fluoroscope machine at the shoe store, to see the “eerily green” bones inside your shoes. She reminded me how my mother would “splurge on a wash, set and manicure” at the beauty salon. Definitely pay attention to the purple prose reportage of the crashes in the local newspaper. It’s priceless and rings absolutely true.
The crashes take place in locations that are part of the daily lives of the town’s children. The kids’ fears ratchet up as all of their assumptions about the order of their world are in jeopardy. Conspiracy theories abound. A pack of blustering, terrified boys is led by one Winky Herkovitz, and they’re certain it’s aliens who “want to take dead children to the past, or the future, to show what life was like in the mid-twentieth century on a planet called Earth.” Or it could be Communists. Or the Mob (remember, it’s New Jersey). “Wake up, Little Suzy,” Winky says, “Everything is about the mob.”
The Attentive Reader Noted: Some reader reviews have complained that the book is confusing because of its wide cast of characters. This is true, and I would argue that reader confusion is Blume’s intention. In the first fifty pages you meet dozens of children and young teens, parents, vacationers, business travelers, pilots and flight attendants, servicemen – you get the idea. It is futile to keep them straight, so don’t even try. Just read. The chaos in your mind is a mirror of the chaos in the minds and lives of the characters. You never know what or who is next. It’s a bold move on Blume’s part, and kind of brilliant.