In the early 1950s, Judy Blume moved with her mother and brother to Florida; her brother was ill, and Florida’s warm weather was meant to be a tonic. Her father, a dentist, stayed behind in New Jersey. In an interview she gave last year, Blume spoke of her anxiety at the time — she was in her early teens. “I was making all kinds of bargains with God, feeling that I had to protect my father . . . I adored my father, [and] not only worried about him flying, which was a very scary idea, but worried about him being safe.”
In the Unlikely Event, her first novel for adults since 1998’s Summer Sisters, that fear of flying is given a very real cause. Blume grew up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, where, in a 60-day period between late 1951 and early 1952, not one but three planes dropped out of the sky on to the town after taking off from nearby Newark airport, killing 119 people in all. Those terrifying months — in a period when Americans were already pretty terrified, of communists, of the war in Korea, and even of UFOs — is the backdrop to Blume’s engaging novel, told through the story of 15-year-old Miri, her friends and the adults around her.
Blume is, of course, a heroine of young adult literature; indeed, it would be fair to say that she pretty much invented the genre. Her books — Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, along with Blubber, Forever, Deenie, Tiger Eyes and many more — have, since the late 1960s, addressed youngsters’ concerns with an honesty that’s still rare. Her books have sold 85m copies around the world and she has won too many awards to list; 15 years ago she was named a “living legend” by the US Library of Congress. Not least because of her frank descriptions of sex, her books are some of the most often challenged in an America where free speech is theoretically guaranteed. This has made her a vocal and influential campaigner against censorship in her native land and around the world.
In the Unlikely Event shares many of the themes that make her books for younger readers so successful; especially the fact that the main thread of the story is Miri’s. At 15, Miri is, like many of Blume’s heroines, on the cusp of adulthood. Suddenly there are not only boys to worry about — not least Mason McKittrick, who lives in the Janet Memorial Orphan Asylum, after his mother left him and his father threatened to kill him — but also what’s going on in her mother’s life, too. Rusty is a beautiful redhead who has never married; she became pregnant with Miri when she was a teenager, and has raised her alone, with help from her loving mother Irene. Blume is very good (of course she is) at portraying the way in which teenage Miri is both aware and unaware of how hard her mother’s life must have been; Blume’s Miri is solipsistic, in the way teenagers are — but never unsympathetic.
Blume’s technique is to move through the characters who people her fictional Elizabeth by telling us, clearly, from whose perspective we’re seeing events as they unfold, labelling them “Miri” or “Rusty” or “Mason”. There’s also Rusty’s younger brother Henry, a heroic young reporter — and important father-figure to Miri — who reports on the crashes; Steve Osner, the son of the kindly local dentist, “Dr O” (there are not one but two kindly dentists in this novel; Blume’s father no doubt has something to do with that); and Christina, Dr O’s young assistant, who falls in love with Mason’s brother Jack (she’s Greek, he’s Irish, so that’s a problem). And there are, too, the shortlived voices of some of the people who board those ill-fated flights: one a stewardess and the other a young dancer called Ruby, whose death powerfully affects Miri’s best friend Natalie.
In less sure hands this method might lead to chaos, but Blume knows what she’s doing. Sure, you could call this a breezy summer read, and it’s definitely a book to pack in your suitcase — but as ever, Blume never flinches from her characters’ real emotions and real struggles as she tells her story. “Miri, sweetheart — life is hard,” Henry says to his beloved niece towards the end of the tale, “but it’s worth the struggle.” That might just be Blume’s motto: a pretty good one, at that.
In the Unlikely Event, by Judy Blume, Picador, RRP£16.99/ Knopf, RRP$27.95, 432 pages