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In the Unlikely Event


In the Unlikely Event

At BookCon in New York City last week, there were just as many grown-up women as teens and tweens in line to meet Judy Blume. After all, Blume is a writer whose appeal stretches across generations. I don’t know anyone who didn’t grow up thinking that male members had to be named or that fat kids could own their chubbiness and succeed in life. Blume made it possible to be a kid in America and NOT feel bad about all the things our parents and grandparents wanted us to feel bad about --- especially sex. Her work will live in infamy, representing the quintessential ideas about what it is to grow up in our capitalistic and superficial society.

However, IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT --- one of Blume’s rare literary outings geared towards adults --- gives us a look at the world our parents and grandparents came from: the 1950s, a time, like now, when we were scared of what might attack us from the skies and of secret terrorism being enacted in the smallest corners of the U.S. From this viewpoint comes the story of a series of real-life disasters that send the lives of typical Americans reeling. It has all the qualities of a good Judy Blume book coupled with the wizened perspective of a writer for whom these things live very viscerally in her memory.

One of the best things about Blume’s work is that she infuses her characters with real-life anxieties that go beyond the borders of the story’s timeline. She brings all the details of the time together, from the music one would hear on the radio to the latest hairstyles to the Communist threat fears that pervaded that era. In this way, she creates a hardcore context in which we can place the characters and live the story through them. It may sound like a DUH moment --- isn’t that what all writers are supposed to do? --- but it is a difficult feat and one that often gets bypassed for more superficial delights in the large genre referred to as historical fiction.

"Without being too on point, Blume has perhaps fashioned the best post-9/11 book written so far. And for those of us who live in the shadow of the downed towers, and remember that fateful day in a way that others around the country may not, it is an exceptionally deep and uplifting portrait of what survival looks like and how it gently reshapes the face of the future forever."

This really is historical fiction --- three linked events that resonate strongly in a part of the world that has seen a great many American disasters take place within miles of its location (not just 9/11, but also the “War of the Worlds” broadcast, the deaths of the Rosenbergs, and Three Mile Island). Elizabeth may now be that sinking feeling between New York City and the more Garden State part of New Jersey, but it is also an urban area on the biggest port in the country, a major point on the flight plans of most major international airways coming into or out of the United States and an industrial zone that houses some of America’s most important exports. In this story, Elizabeth, New Jersey, stands in proudly for little America, the place where the decent folks lived between wars that shook the world apart, resettled it and then started ripping it apart again.

In 1987, Miri Ammerman comes home to Elizabeth. She is there to attend a commemoration of what she thinks is the worst year of her life to date. When she was 15, falling in love for the first time, experiencing all the joys of an innocent adolescence, three airplanes fell out of the sky and crashed. Why? No one is sure. Was it a Communist threat? Was it some kind of undercover situation gone wrong? Or just the fact that air travel was entering its own young adulthood, spreading wings and taking grounded humans into the skies to travel to places theretofore unknown? Miri’s life and all her choices, along with the choices of the next three generations of her New Jersey family --- are haunted by the specter of these events.

The best details in the book are the ones in which the families are always connected to each other --- so and so’s cousin in Perth Amboy, so-and-so’s brother-in-law on Long Island. Those connections not only bring different generations into contact with each other, they remind us of the interconnectedness of all the people who live in this part of the country. New Jersey is the most densely populated state in the U.S. and always seems to have been that way. This means that an airplane crash and the deaths of the people in those crashes resonate in tsunami waves across one community after another, because of those connections. Miri and her family, and the other families in this story, feel those waves for many years to come. Reading this, I was reminded of my train commute post-9/11, where the cars of the dead stayed parked in parking lots at train stations all up and down the Northeast Corridor, a hard-metal reminder of the lives that had gone up in smoke that horrible day. That’s what it’s like when you live in a place with millions of other people right next to you.

Through Miri’s eyes, we relive this experience --- the tragedies, the families left behind by the deceased, the complicated legal situations that sat on the shoulders of generations of family members --- and the resolutions a long time in coming that reflect the kind of sturm und drang that 9/11-affected families and Superstorm Sandy survivors continue to experience: life insurance policies, lawsuits, all the things that go into rebuilding a life when a family has been struck by tragedy. From the history of this small city comes a story that literally quakes with similarities to all the other disasters that generations of people are trying to resolve in New Jersey and places just like it.

Blume loves New Jersey, the Eastern Seaboard and all the places in it. She loves the hustle and bustle of the busy streets and the excitement that comes from living so close to one of the greatest cities in the world. She imbues this book with all that love and excitement, and readers will take Miri to heart. She represents so much --- how one way of life is cracked and then turns into another, the way that one person’s tragedy affects everyone that individual encounters, the way history shapes our lives for better or for worse.

IN THE UNLIKELY EVENT is a wonderful book, a parable of life in America post-9/11. It is by going backwards that Blume helps us accept that the wounds of yesterday will heal, but the lessons learned in the healing will have a profound effect on everything to come after it. Without being too on point, Blume has perhaps fashioned the best post-9/11 book written so far. And for those of us who live in the shadow of the downed towers, and remember that fateful day in a way that others around the country may not, it is an exceptionally deep and uplifting portrait of what survival looks like and how it gently reshapes the face of the future forever.

Blume has written more than just a beach read here. This is a Philip Roth-type depiction of a life that can be interpreted through the lens of so many intense situations like it across the years. As one of the characters says, “I’m just saying our government doesn’t want us to know the truth.” Maybe the government does not, but Judy Blume does. So crack the spine and LISTEN. There’s something important going on here.

Reviewed by Jana Siciliano on June 5, 2015

In the Unlikely Event
by Judy Blume

  • Publication Date: May 3, 2016
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Paperback: 512 pages
  • Publisher: Vintage
  • ISBN-10: 1101873981
  • ISBN-13: 9781101873984