Book/Author and Year Published: In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume (2015)
Age/Genre: Coming of Age Fiction, Historical Fiction
Preferred Reading Environment: Surrounded by Family
Reading Accoutrements: Your feel-good food. Pizza and Ice Cream would work well.
Content Notes: Death, Infidelity, 50s-era biases (casual sexism, racism, etc, particularly against Jewish and Black people)
It’s National First Love Day! Now, you might be thinking, “Love? Why isn’t Bethany doing this review? Jeriann doesn’t read romance novels.” WELL, it’s because I got to it first! But no, I am not going to be reviewing a romance novel. Instead, I’m reviewing a book by an author who is often associated with first love and other traumatizing adolescent experiences: Judy Blume!
I’m pretty sure Judy Blume is a complete badass, and though I haven’t read any of her children’s books since I was of the target age for them, I remember loving her characters. They’re quirky and flawed, while being good natured and relatable.
In the Unlikely Event is not a children’s book. The main character, Miri, is 15, and a large part of the plot does follow her first encounter with love. However, I would only recommend this book for readers who can understand mature themes and grapple with complex moral questions without clear answers.
When I was looking for genre categorizations for this book, I didn’t see it listed as historical fiction, but I think it definitely deserves that label. This is set very firmly in 1952 New Jersey, with tons of little cultural details for authenticity. The main storyline is based on real events – a series of plane crashes that devastated the town of Elizabeth, New Jersey within the span of three months. Judy Blume grew up in Elizabeth and was in 8th grade when the planes crashed. The characters are fiction, but she included many real-world facts about the details of the crashes and other current events from the time.
Lately, I’ve really been enjoying books where we get multiple character perspectives, and In the Unlikely Event might include this feature to a larger extent than anything else I’ve read recently. Miri is definitely the main focus, as her perspective is included the most, and much of the plot centers around her and her family. However, we get sections where we see the perspective of other characters, some of whom are central to the overall plot, and some of whom are only relevant for a moment. The variety in perspectives serves to show how connected people are, so when tragedy strikes, we clearly see how individuals are affected in different ways.
I must admit, even though the blurb warned me that this story portrayed a real tragedy, I wasn’t ready for it to be as intense as it was. We get about 50 pages of character introduction and establishment of setting, and suddenly we witness a plane crash from the perspective of people in the plane. Minor spoiler: Blume is not afraid to kill characters who we’ve become attached to. She shows so many different levels of how people are affected by tragedies – from those who are direct victims, to those with family members who have died, to the people providing aid, to people who barely know the victims. It made me nervous every time any character got on a plane.
The overarching story focuses on how a town deals with tragedy, but we get Miri as a closeup of how tragic events affect children. Miri is the daughter of a single working mom, Rusty, with a tight-knit support system. Miri and Rusty live with Rusty’s mom and brother. Miri doesn’t know anything about her father, only that Rusty refuses to talk about him. At the beginning of the book, Miri meets Mason, an orphan whom she quickly develops a romantic relationship with. When several mechanical failures lead to fatal plane crashes in her small town, Miri and her friend group deal with the after-effects. They all know people who are killed in the accidents. No one feels safe.
Many chapters begin with newspaper clippings, some regarding the plane crashes, but others covering other events from the time. We see coverage of the McCarthy hearings, the Rosenbergs, and a couple seemingly-random gossip pieces. I was curious whether Blume took real news clippings or created her own, and the answer, of course, was both. She compiled real news reports and took notes on what she wanted to use inspiration from. Then her husband wrote the news clippings and she served as the paper editor. I thought this was an awesome glimpse of her writing process and made sense for the overall tone of the book. The setting and events of this book are accurate, but the characters are Blume’s creations.
Speaking of the setting, Blume shows a lot of the struggles of the 50s. The conflict in Korea is weighing on a lot of the character’s minds, particularly those who may be drafted. Rusty is judged for being a single mom. Several of the teenaged characters are ridiculed by their families for dating people who are not of their ethnicity or religion. A woman seeking contraception has to have permission from her husband. An African American family has to see the dentist after hours because the dentist’s wife doesn’t want other patients to see them. The prejudice is part of the setting, which is a part of the 50s that I feel some novels try to gloss over.
One thing I love about seeing things from so many characters’ perspectives is that not all of the characters are great people. In fact, there were a lot of characters who I disliked and questioned their motivations. Blume did a great job of showing people as flawed without villainizing them, which was refreshing, but there were a couple of places where I felt like certain characters were let off a little easy; grandparents were pretty much excused for their race and religion-based prejudices, and infidelity was treated on about the same level as casual sex, which I felt was a little off. I think Blume was going for an overall push for accepting life’s differences and imperfections, and being able to move on when people fail you. Miri’s dad never becomes a big part of her life, but she doesn’t hate him over it. She accepts that he just isn’t a person with a place in her life. Overall, I love that message, but when a character cheats on his wife and the situation is almost immediately accepted with an “it is what it is” attitude, I feel a little let down. Like, yes, I like Blume’s rejection of judgmentalism over sexual relations outside of marriage, and I think the approach to the fact that “relationships end and that’s okay” is great. But relationships ending and someone cheating are two different things. There are healthy ways to end a relationship and cheating and lying aren’t among them. If there were some real consequences for the perpetrator, or even an acknowledgement that he took the wrong approach, I would have enjoyed it more.
Overall though, I loved this book, and it made me want to buy all of Judy Blume’s kids’ books for my pregnant friends. I enjoyed learning a few cool specific details about the 50s (Did you know pregnancy tests used to involve killing rabbits?), and I’ve already read a couple articles about the real plane crashes. Any book that makes me research is a win in my eyes, and the fact that this one was full of relatable characters in so many varying situations made this both an enjoyable read and a learning opportunity.
Who’s your favorite childhood author? Do you enjoy them as an adult?