Thursday, September 10, 2015
"In the Unlikely Event:" Fasten Your Seatbelts
I grew up on Judy Blume books.
I'm sure most women in their early 40s would make the same claim. Judy Blume opened my eyes to the trials of adolescence from bullying, to menstruating, to having a bratty younger sibling, to masturbation, to wanting bigger breasts, to the turbulent world of first sexual relationships. Underlying all of her books for me was honesty and realness.
She tells life like it is which is why her books have been the subject of countless bannings and calls for censorship from school libraries. Seeing an elementary school girl with the book "Forever" tucked under her arm branded her a harlot, one to be watched by her teachers.
In her first adult book since 1998's "Summer Sisters" Blume draws from her childhood growing up in Elizabeth, New Jersey which was branded "Plane Crash City" in the winter of 1952 when three planes inexplicably crashed there in an 8 week span. Blume was an 8th grader at Hamilton when these tragedies unfolded. She returned to those tragedies to craft the fictional lives of a chorus of characters who all suffer in different ways due to the crashes.
At the center of this novel is Miri Ammerman, a 9th grade Jewish girl, whose single mom, Rusty, her Uncle Henry and her grandmother live together harmoniously until the planes begin to crash. As she deals with her best friend's mental illness, her first heartbreaking love with orphan Mason, and her mother's first real boyfriend, as well as her father appearing in her life again, she also must deal with the betrayal of safety she feels when planes fall from the sky - not once, not twice, but three times in one winter.
She writes a poem about the crashes that she reads at a reunion years later: "Life goes on, as our parents promised that winter / Life goes on if you're one of the lucky ones / But we're still part of a secret club / One we'd never willingly join / With members who have nothing in common / except time and a place / We'll always be connected by that winter / Anyone who tells you different is lying."
Miri's Uncle Henry writes about the crashes for the local paper and becomes a kind of local hero as does her boyfriend, Mason, who fearlessly pulls people from the 3rd crash and saved lives.
The power in this novel full of so many characters that at times I felt dizzy from the quick chapters and multitudes of perspectives, comes from Miri's and the other young characters who come of age in the early 1950s. Even without planes falling out of the sky, adolescence can be hard, but with the added tragedies that many speculated were the work of communists or aliens, the looming pressures of adulthood seem insurmountable.
Blume's history as a life changing YA author shows when she delicately crafts the love story between Mason and Miri. Their first dance together that didn't need conversation, their first gentle kiss, their heartbreaking conclusion and even their rediscovery of each other were written with sensitivity and love. In the same way, Blume shows how the crashes unraveled Miri's best friend and her best friend's seemingly perfect family. Everyone in this novel suffers the crashes in different ways - either as immediate victim or post traumatic casualties. They are all connected.
For me "The Umbrella of Death" as the winter of 1952 in Elizabeth, New Jersey was referred to, took on larger significance. It's the tragedies of life that often define us - how we heal from heartbreak, how we recover from illnesses both mental and physical, how we move on from the dissolution of our families or the loss of best friends or potential lovers. It's that turbulence that Blume shows with heart and humility and what has made her such a phenomenon and such a defining part of the young adults' lives. She knows how to give us a flight worth remembering - that we need to fasten our seat belts for, and that we need to wonder if there will be a safe landing or a horrible, tragic crash. Regardless, we know that life will go on, even in the face of tragedy that no one should need to suffer through.