In The Unlikely Event by Judy Blume
Although Judy Blume has written previously for adults, anyone – certainly any girl – who grew up in the 70s or 80s will be familiar her novels for children and teenagers. Blume was one of a relatively small number of children’s writers prepared to address awkward topics in a way that was non-judgemental and empathetic but often also funny. Friendships, sibling rivalry, the mortifying anxieties of puberty, divorce, first love, racism and even the death are all part of Judy Blume’s fictional world, and yet her stories are full of warmth, wit and hope. I'm sure there are plenty of girls who can truthfully say that they only found what periods were from reading Judy Blume, but in fact, the most important thing I took away from books is that however embarrassing your adolescent mistakes, however different from your peers you think you are and however infuriating your family and friends, you will, eventually, Be All Right.
In The Unlikely Event is in fact not a children's or YA novel, although its main character is a teenager throughout much of the story and Blume's breezily straightforward prose style makes it an easy read that many young adult readers would also enjoy. Set in Elizabeth, New Jersey in 1951 it’s a fictional account of an extraordinary year in the town’s real-life history: a year in which three separate passenger planes crashed in the town, entirely by coincidence, killing 118 people. Blume herself, as she explained at an ‘Audience With...’ event I attended at Manchester Central Library while she was promoting the book, was a teenager in Elizabeth at the time, and In The Unlikely Event draws strongly from her own memories of that year, and from local newspaper reports at the time.
Forming the backdrop to the three plane crashes is a fascinating chronicle of various characters' lives, which combine to form a pin-sharp portrait of small town American life in the 1950s that at times reminded me of Grace Metalious' greatly underrated Peyton Place. Although the main character is 15-year-old Miri Ammerman , there are also numerous sections told from the points of view of many other characters – including, most poignantly, a number of crash victims – and beneath the bright, aspirational, wholesome exterior of 1950s America, almost everyone has something to hide.
Miri lives with her pretty, hardworking mother Rusty, her indomitable grandmother Irene and Uncle Henry, a kind, principled local journalist: Rusty has never had a husband but this is rarely spoken of within the family, let alone outside it. By contrast Miri’s friend Natalie appears to have the perfect 1950s nuclear family - affluent, well-dressed and charming. But Natalie herself is soon showing signs of serious emotional disturbance, and her charming father Dr Osner smashes plaster figurines in his office to let off steam. His receptionist Christina has a long-term secret boyfriend her family will never accept because he isn't Greek. Miri's orphaned boyfriend Mason is reveals some shocking facts about his troubled past, but has another secret he can't bring himself to reveal.
Options for the women of Elizabeth are terribly limited – a young woman who dreams of becoming an air stewardess notes that candidates must be ‘single, not married, divorced or separated’ and Miri's headmaster is openly disapproving of her mother's work in a New York department store.
As speculation starts to grow over how three planes could possibly crash over the same town in one year, we're reminded of the paranoia of 1950s McCarthyism and the Cold War - the pupils at Miri's high school constantly share their conspiracy theories, yet are forbidden from writing about the plane crashes in the school newspaper.
And yet, despite the repression and the secrets, the fear that hangs over the town of Elizabeth in the wake of the disasters and the terrible things the people have witnessed, the crashes seem to be a catalyst for change. For some, adversity simply seems to bring out the best in them: Henry, for example, makes his name as a journalist with his perceptive, distinctive reports on the disasters. But for others, the simple realisation not only that life is short but that death can be random seems to spur them to make decisions that will change the course of their lives forever.
In The Unlikely Event is a beautifully evocative read – with cashmere sweaters and powder compacts, dancing to Nat King Cole with a boy who has a pack of Lucky Strikes in his shirt pocket and lingerie shops that specialise in girdles, Blume conjures up a perfect picture of 50s America. Each chapter is introduced by one of Henry’s newspaper articles, all of which are so pitch-perfect for the journalism of the time that it’s hard not to hear them being read in the voice of Ed Murrow. There are occasional appearances by real-life Jewish gangster Longy Zwillman, and Las Vegas is talked of as a soon-to-be-built land of opportunity for modern-day pioneers.
If you read Judy Blume’s books as a child and liked them, you’ll almost certainly like In The Unlikely Event too: Blume’s warmth and sympathy for her own characters really shines through, even as they make terrible mistakes, and her ability to see an adult world through Miri’s teenage eyes is second to none. But this isn’t just a book for Blume fans – it’s an excellent and extremely readable portrait of a community, its relationships and its secrets. The language throughout is straightforward and the plot is episodic rather than complex, but none of this matters, because what Blume is interested in is people: the worries they have, the mistakes they make, the lies they tell and the secrets they keep. The tone of In The Unlikely Event is always understanding, never judgemental, and its end note is very much one of life going on.