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January 19, 2016

In the Unlikely Event

IIn the Unlikely Eventn the Unlikely Event

By: Judy Blume

Judy Blume first made her name forty years ago as a writer of children’s books – books that explored the inner lives of children and teens, often dealing with uncomfortable topics that had been taboo. Her honest portrayals of divorce, abuse, sexual awakening, and more have landed her titles on banned books lists for years and made her a beloved award-winner to generations of readers. Blume’s target audience now includes young adults and adults as well. No matter the age of her readers, Blume’s style remains unpretentious, humorous, and accessible as her characters encounter the human foibles common to us all. In exploring these topics, her readers learn about themselves and others and become confident they are not alone in their insecurities.

Blume’s most recent offering, In the Unlikely Event, is classified as an adult work, which took five years to research and write. Like many of Blume’s books, it contains numerous biographical elements; the story itself is based on her own personal experience. Set in the early 1950s, the narrative flows from a series of very unlikely events that occur over the course of two months’ time in a small New Jersey town named Elizabeth. At first I found it difficult to buy in to three unrelated and tragic plane crashes occurring in the same town within two months – it’s just too much to conceive. But then I learned that this story is true – based on facts – and 14-year-old Judy Blume lived it herself! Sometimes truth is indeed stranger than fiction!

The central character is Miri Ammerman, the 15-year-old daughter of a single working class mother and a mysteriously absent father whom she’s never met. Into the ordinary adolescent lives of Miri, her friends, and their families come the dramatic and tragic air disasters – one after the other. The cumulative effects of these events on Blume’s hefty cast of characters, and how they cope or don’t cope, make her story extremely compelling. The first-person narrative is voiced by Miri and several others, both adolescents and adults. Brief news accounts that introduce each new chapter, penned by Miri’s journalist uncle and other journalists, are particularly effective at placing the reader into the moment.

Being a child of the 50’s myself, I appreciated the sense of returning to an earlier era for which I have a nostalgic affection. Truman is in the White House, American soldiers are fighting and dying in Korea, Princess Elizabeth is ascending to the throne, and the A-Bomb is being tested outside Las Vegas. Coming of age in the 50s seems almost quaint from today’s perspective. Girls wore cardigan sweater sets, nylons, and skirts. Neither the pill nor the sexual revolution had yet opened the door to the “free love” attitudes of the 70s. Everyone read Life, Look, and National Geographic magazines and listened to the radio. But behind closed doors, drama and intrigue lurked then, just as it does today.

I listened to this book on audio, rather than reading it and found it a challenge to keep my bearings. Because of the numerous characters involved and the shifting of voice and of time from past to present, I recommend reading it in print form to help the reader maintain his/her equilibrium. I enjoyed becoming a fly on the wall in Elizabeth, NJ for a brief time. The spunky attitudes of Miri and others to persevere in the face of turmoil, fear, regret, and emotional upheaval make you root for a happy ending for all concerned. You’ll have to pick up this book to see if they get it!

Review By: Pam Lamberger