Up in the Air with Nowhere to Go
I enjoy marking the passage of seasons in this column, because sometimes certain months seem appropriate for certain types of books. July is one that I tend to mark out for beach-related books—ones with good stories that you can dangle from your finger-tips as you take a snooze on a lounger at the pool or near the pounding surf during your vacation at the shore. DC dozes also, working with skeleton staffs, and if you stay home, you relax with a fun work of fiction after working on the house or finishing a project. This month I picked Judy Blume’s newest book, In the Unlikely Event, as my candidate.
Judy Blume is a long-beloved author for teens and adults who wrote forthright teen classics like Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret; Deenie; and Forever; which marked one of the first teen sex scenes displayed in fiction. Generation X-ers internalized her as part of their adolescence. She was subject to book bannings for her much-needed frankness. Both librarians and her fans battled back against censorship. In the Unlikely Event is an adult novel based on Blume’s experiences growing up as a teen in the early 1950s in Elizabeth, New Jersey. In the space of several months three plane crashes occurred around the Newark Airport, losing lives in the air and on the ground. She explores the impact of these crashes on a wide selection of interrelated people in the city.
The main character, Miriam, nick-named Miri, has a cozy family that lives together in a duplex: her grandmother, Irene, lives with her Uncle Henry, a journalist for an Elizabeth newspaper, and she lives with her mother, Naomi, nick-named Rusty. Her mother had become pregnant out of wedlock, and has never named her father and never wants to discuss him. Miri, at the age of fourteen, would like to know more, but knows that her family keeps secrets.
Her best friend is Natalie Osner, whose father, Dr. O, is a beloved local dentist, and whose mother, Corinne, is a wealthy woman from Birmingham, AL. They seem like the perfect Jewish upscale family. She spends time with Natalie and Natalie’s siblings, including younger sister, Fern, and older brother, Steve, and sometimes fantasizes about their families being joined if Corinne wasn’t there.
The first plane crash badly affects the community, destroying any complacency in residents who have gotten back to work despite the legacy of World War II and the current Korean War hanging over their heads. Miri’s friend, Natalie Osner, starts channeling one of the dead from the first plane, a famous dancer named Ruby Granik, and taking dance to be just like her, becoming anorexic as a way of maintaining control amidst the subterranean problems going on in her own family. Miri becomes completely shaken and feels as if she is losing her friend.
In the mean time, she meets a non-Jewish boy, Mason McKittrick, at one of Natalie’s parties and feels an instant connection to him, one that she knows her family won’t like. They have a strong connection, and he becomes part of her growing up and her security, particularly when the second plane crashes on the ground and hits buildings that are near schools.
Also, Miri’s paternal aunt, Frekki Lasner, whom she had never met before, shows up, and wants her to meet her birth father, Mike Monsky. She hides this brief meeting from her mother with very mixed feelings. Her boyfriend, Mason, who lives in the orphan’s home, becomes a hero when he rescues people from the third plane crash, which happens near his residence.
Judy Blume goes on to mix in a wide variety of composite characters from the Elizabeth in which she grew up and shows how their relationships change under the stresses of the plane crashes, as new widowers find second wives, couples realize their need to divorce, and other couples buck family traditions and marry despite their families’ desire for them to stay within their ethnicity.
Through Miri’s eyes, and the voices of other characters, the youngsters in the junior high school and high school are traumatized by the seemingly inexplicable crashes, coming up with wild theories such as UFOs, sabotage, and explosions aimed at youth, since all of the plane crashes occurred near schools and dormitories. In this Blume reveals how some of the paranoia of the Fifties affected their thinking. It was a time when McCarthy was a potent force in redbaiting and the Cold War made another atom bomb a real possibility. Jewish gangsters were also a force in Elizabeth, and through her wide cast of characters, Blume shows them getting ready to build the city in the desert, Las Vegas, after making their bones on the East Coast near New York.
In the Unlikely Event reminded me more of a book by Maeve Binchy than Judy Blume. Like Binchy, Blume includes dramatic twists and turns and carefully interlaces the relationships between people in a large community, coming to some unexpected conclusions. She has a knack for talking about teenagers and their joys and trials in growing up, but her main character has been diluted here through the focus on lesser relationships between others.
Maeve Binchy’s books, while equally broad-ranging in terms of people and their connections, also evoke a strong sense of warmth regarding those communities that I found missing here. I would recommend Binchy’s earlier novels in particular as good beach books. While Blume writes with warmth in some of these family relationships, she did not make me care about any of the characters, including the main one, the one bearing my own first name. I found them two-dimensional and thin. I wished that she had made this a more focused book, one focused on the main character and her friends. It would have been better even as a book meant for teenagers, since it depicts Blume’s own adolescent experience with these crashes.
Blume’s book, Wifey, written long ago for adults, was a raunchy potboiler that was definitely not for children, and it was entertaining and a fun bestseller for the time. I hope that Blume uses her singular talents to try her hand at something else in the future, including a novel along the lines of any of her past successes, instead of this type of novel.
Written by: Miriam R. Kramer