Disaster and love: Flight disasters and the families left behind

In the Unlikely Event – words we’ve all heard in the safety drill before take-off – is a book based on three air disasters in Elizabeth, New Jersey,  1951 -1952. But it is a lot more than that.

This is Judy Blume’s first adult novel in 20 years though she is well known for her teenage fiction. The book is published by Pan Macmillan under the Picador label and I thank them for my review copy.

Elizabeth, New Jersey is under the flight path of Newark Airport. The air disaster events are true – no author would make them up. They are indeed, ‘unlikely events’. Judy Blume has carefully researched the reports and findings of the disasters, read the newspaper accounts and conducted interviews of people involved to provide an authentic background to the stories of the people in the novel.

The novel examines the impact on the town, families and individuals.

The story is seen through the eyes of Miri Ammerman, a Jewish teenager who lives with her single mother, Rusty, her grandmother, Irene and her young uncle, Henry, a reporter.

Ad. Article continues below.

In many ways, this is a coming of age story set against the background of the three terrible crashes and loss of life. When the book opens Miri is much loved by her family, has a close circle of girlfriends and no experience with boys. She is a good student. Miri’s family keep the secret of who her father is from her, so this aspect is an important part of her growing up. The group of girls all has different ambitions – what would they do before marriage?  Miri falls in love with Mason and another young girl falls in love with his brother Jack. Judy Blume skillfully explores the growing sexuality of the two young couples in the closely monitored life of teenagers in the fifties. I found this thoroughly convincing. The town’s teenagers react in a variety of ways. The crashes have been caused by zombies, aliens or in this era of Mc McCarthyism and the Korean War – the Commies. All of them find it deeply disturbing to find that life can end in a moment and survivors’ lives can change forever. All of the young people have to deal with their family expectations of how they behave, who is an appropriate friend of either sex, what career the boys will follow, or, in the case of the girls, how they will fill in time till married.

I found this book a novel of love stories. There is the love between mothers and daughters in the difficult teenage years and the love as a mother ages, there is the love between extended family members, love between husbands and wives and the question of fidelity, there is sexual love from teenagers, to older  married couples and to grandparents. Same sex friendships are important as are platonic friendships. I found myself reflecting on these and admiring the author’s skillful control of her characters’ lives.

Ad. Article continues below.

While the setting – small town USA in 1951 and 1952 – is not one I remember, it seems an excellent portrayal of an era I know from history. To one used to the safety standards of Australia, the safety regulations seem very cavalier, and the foundation of Las Vegas and the role of Jewish gangsters (thoroughly researched by Blume) most intriguing.

The novel ends with a reunion of townspeople some thirty-five years after the event and we catch up with the characters lives. And it asks the question many of us puzzle with: What has happened to our first love and would the sparks still fly?

At the service, Miri reads a poem part of which is:

Life goes on, as our parents promised that winter.

Life goes on if you’re one of the lucky ones.

Ad. Article continues below.

But we’re still part of a secret club,

One we’d never willingly join,

With members who have nothing in common except a time and a place.

I finished reading the book on the first anniversary of the shooting down of MH17. It’s well worth reading.

In the Unlikely Event, by Judy Blume is available to purchase at Dymocks