In the winter of 1951-’52, in the early days of commercial air travel, there was a series of plane crashes in Elizabeth, New Jersey, which was directly on the flight path for takeoffs and landings at nearby Newark Metropolitan Airport. Two of the emergency landings were in residential neighborhoods and killed people on the ground as well as passengers. The residents of Elizabeth, quite understandably, freaked out. There were protests and calls to shut down the airport and wild theories, including Communist sabotage, alien invasions, and a plot against the town’s children.
In her latest book, In the Unlikely Event, Judy Blume tells the story of that winter through the points of view of a wide range of characters—teenagers and adults, crash victims and bystanders, most of them connected to two families, the Ammermans and the Osners. Some of these people only appear for a page or two, just long enough for their names to resonate later on. Others play more significant roles, but Blume returns most often to 15-year-old Miri Ammerman. Like many of Blume’s heroines, Miri is bright, observant, and curious. Over the course of nine months filled with unlikely events, she will fall in love, grow apart from her best friend, and be forced to accept the flaws in the adults in her life. It’s a lot to deal with, even in an ordinary time, but the civic tragedy turns her life—and the lives of her family and friends—into part of a larger story, the story of their community.
Blume has said in interviews that In the Unlikely Event will be her last book. In the spirit of the book’s conspiracy-minded characters, I’m going to refuse to believe this claim until it’s been definitely proven. But if In the Unlikely Event truly is the end, it’s an excellent and satisfying farewell. It has all the elements of Blume’s best books: the complex relationships between friends and family members, the straight talk and lack of shame about sex, and, most of all, the compassionate insight into the pleasures and pains of growing up.
“Life goes on, as our parents promised that winter,” Miri reflects in a prologue set 35 years later. “But we’re still part of a secret club, one we’d never willingly join.”
This is, in many ways, what Blume has been telling her readers for the past 45 years: even when the worst thing you can imagine happens (your little brother eats your turtle, the class bully turns on you, your father dies), life will go on. She doesn’t just offer empty reassurances, either. She’s right there with her characters—and, by extension, her readers—as they learn to adjust and adapt. This is why, even though it seems like just about everybody has read Judy Blume, her books still manage to feel personal, like a “secret club,” in a way that, say, the Baby-Sitters Club or Twilight, do not. They hold up, better, too: even to a grown-up, Tales of a Fourth Grade Nothing and Tiger Eyes are still great. And reading In the Unlikely Event, a book for adults, you realize that Blume has always written in the same deceptively plain language: she never talked down to her younger readers.
Thank you, Judy, for everything. v