When reading Judy Blume’s In the Unlikely Event, I remembered a writing prompt from Sister Eugene Marie’s composition class – listing ten people, with short biographies; only five would survive a catastrophe. The writer decides not only who will live or die, but how the event affects others. In Blume’s book, actual air crashes near Newark airport in the 1950s trigger a fictionalized version of survivors and those whose lives were accidentally cut short.
The story revolves around Miri, a fifteen year old girl who lives in Elizabeth, New Jersey – a small town on the flight path of the airport and the site of three fatal airplane crashes within three months. The lives of Miri’s family and friends intersect with some of the passengers, creating dramatic possibilities and unlikely heroes, sometimes changing lives. True love blossoms and fades; panic draws a disparate community together. As Blume jumps from one character’s thoughts to another, the relationships between the chorus of players can be hard to follow, but eventually her constant return to Miri saves the narrative.
Although Blume uses real dates for the air crashes (and in her afterward refers to her own experience living in the area at the time), the time frame of the fifties lends a surreal value to living with unexpected terror. This is the time of McCarthy’s relentless campaign seeking Communists, Sputnik heralding the possibilities of outer space and possible extraterrestrials, the draft of young men into the Korean War – and Blume weaves all of them into the story. These New Jersey school children who were taught to duck and cover, cowering under desks to avoid a bomb, were suddenly in the path of a crashing plane. The news is dramatic, and Henry, Mira’s uncle, finds his vocation as a newsman reporting the facts, and interviewing relatives of the victims.
Blume’s strength is getting into the heads of her characters, especially children. When they are confused and terrified, when they are juggling the uncertainties of the world around them, and when they discover each other’s flaws, the story is at its best. The airplane crashes are just the vehicle for following their lives. Blume begins the story with the promise of a reunion thirty years after the events, flashes back to the time of “the umbrella of death,” and finishes by revealing how all the surviving characters grew up to lead productive lives.
The story moves slowly, but if you are a fan of Judy Blume, you’ll find yourself once again immersed and empathizing. “Terrible things can happen in this life…” warns one of the characters, but Blume suggests that how we get through them matters.