In the Unlikely Event is based on a series of tragedies that occurred in Elizabeth, NJ, over a short period of time from year end 1951 until a couple of months into 1952. These events led to a redesign of the flight paths of planes flying over residential areas. The story is based on a time period well remembered by the author since she lived in Elizabeth at the time. Although she calls this an adult novel, it is populated largely by teenagers and seemed more appropriate to me, for that age group rather than adults.
“Fifteen-year-old Miri (Miriam) Ammerman, narrates the story. She lives with her unmarried mother, Rusty (Naomi), her grandmother, Irene, and her Uncle Henry, a newspaper reporter. Like most 1950s American teens, Miri’s biggest worries are friends, homework and boys, until a Miami Airlines plane plunges into the Elizabeth River in December of 1951. Blume brings not just Miri and her family to life, but many of the passengers on those doomed flights. Although the tragic incidents are real, the characters are not. The title is based on the words of the flight attendant at the start of a flight. The book is based on how people react if and when that unlikely event occurs.
In an attempt to bring the time period of the early fifties to life, and what I believe was an attempt to honor the victims and witnesses of the multiple plane crashes, Blume has written a story that shows how they were all were ultimately effected by those events. It shows how they suffered not only from the loss of friends and family at the time, but how the fear engendered by the events, along with the grief and memories, lasted far into the future bringing along unintended consequences. There were many victims, not only those on the plane or their friends and families. There were those hidden in the shadows, those who merely witnessed the events, those whom the plane narrowly missed and those who participated in the rescues or in identifying the victims. They suffered long lasting effects from those terrible memories. In the present and in the future, the paths of their lives were altered.
As Blume takes us on a journey through those tumultuous months, she also introduces the famous historic events of the times and the story is quite nostalgic for those of us with memories of that era. She gives voice to the politics and morality of that time which are viewed very differently today. I, as a reader, could not help wondering if the tumultuous fifties, which began a trend of loosening morality, did not usher in much of the travails that the world faces today. In the fifties, it was a much simpler time, with clearer rules to follow, as opposed to today when rules are loose and anything and everything seems to be an appropriate behavior. Those t houghts aside, I do remember Hoover vacuums, although my mom had a Kirby. I remember Ronson lighters. I had one. I remember Esterbrook pens because I had one of those too. Deviled eggs and chicken ala king were the fare of middle-income homes. Dixie cup ice creams were a treat. Nylon slips were the fashion and Noxema skin cream, with its distinctive scent, was good for all your skin’s needs, including sunburn! There were no designer cosmetics like there are today. Children’s feet were fluoroscoped, kids necked in cars, and there were homes for orphans and unwed mothers. Women went to college to earn an MRS. and married to have sex. Working outside the home was frowned upon and only women who had to work went to business, as it was called then. My father was terrified of Joe McCarthy and my cousin came home from the Korean War with his hair turned white. Women who were unable to bear children were frowned upon as if it was their fault and divorce was considered shameful. There was no such thing as a legal abortion and many women died in the back rooms of unqualified doctors.
Having experienced that time period in my own life, although I am somewhat younger, and having suffered my own traumatic plane experience as a teenager, an event which prevented me from flying for two decades and wiped out my dream of becoming a stewardess (I wore glasses so I couldn’t anyway, you were required to have perfect vision), I have to admit this book was a hard read for me. Still, the book made me wonder if we were better off then, than we are today, with our different fears, not of the duck and cover type, not of the gangsters like Bugsy Siegel, not of student sit-ins which shut down schools, although that still occurs today and still today serves to dumb down education, rather than improve it, not of aliens or nuclear war, but of the constant threat of terrorism at any time and any place. Today, with the lack of a stay at home parent, we have more crime and more gangs on the street. Today we study sociological subjects more often than the three “R’s” which would serve our students better when they searched for employment.
It was a dark and gloomy book, at times, with far too many characters that often taxed the reader’s memory, with the mention of far too many societal ills (I would be hard put to think of one that was left out), and it ended in a somewhat fairytale way, since most of the characters featured, that suffered the trauma, eventually wound up with very satisfying and accomplished lives, even if it wasn’t the life they originally planned for themselves. Secrets and choices seriously affected the outcomes of many of the character’s lives, in unexpected ways, but in the end, everyone seemed to live happily ever after, and that surprised me. I was also surprised that some very poor behavior was totally acceptable, and everyone seemed to find their own prince or princess in the end. In a nice touch, the book ends with the names and ages of the victims being read off at a ceremony honoring them. Also all of the relationships introduced found ways to work themselves out. Parents forgave children, friends forgave friends and children forgave parents. Would real life have turned out that way?
While the reader read the story in a comfortable, resonant voice, accenting important moments with appropriate stress, her portrayal of Miri seemed to be the same when she was 15 as when she was 50. She still sounded innocent and immature and was speaking in a childlike manner. Miri was simply too perfect and level-headed a character to be realistic to me, since even as a teen, when she should have felt some need to rebel, she was well behaved and obedient. If she was fashioned after Judy Blume as a teenager, than Judy’s family was lucky to have such a “perfect” child. Because the book raises so many issues that society has to confront, I think it would be a good book for discussion groups. I also think it is more of a crossover, YA to adult, rather than an adult book.
In the end, I thought a philosophical message seemed to be imparted by one of the rather young characters. She says that “not all unlikely events are bad!” I also wondered if the ultimate message was that while “not all unlikely events are bad”, they also mark a period of new beginnings, even as they mark an untimely end to some that were planned. The book deals with how all different victims deal with their grief and recovery. It showed the long and short term effects of the tragedy on its victims.