In a three-month period during the early 1950s, citizens of Elizabeth, New Jersey, a town just outside Newark Airport, were stunned when three planes crashed in their town. A total of 118 people were killed, including eleven on the ground. People in the town were left to make sense of such an inconceivable coincidence as they faced the random destruction of some homes and apartment buildings and frightening near misses of several schools and an orphanage. In the Unlikely Event is a fictionalized depiction of Elizabeth during this time, a period in which there were no doubt many stories.
Judy Blume’s story revolves around a huge and confusing cast of characters (about seventy-five), including the infamous Jewish gangster, Longy Zwillman, a regular in many of Elizabeth’s popular restaurants. Her main character is Miri Ammerman, a fifteen-year-old girl who shares a duplex with her never-married mother, grandmother and uncle. Miri fantasizes about being part the seemingly perfect family of her best friend, Natalie Osner, sensing what’s missing in her own family.
Included in the plot are many friends, families, cousins, business associates and love interests, creating a complicated and sometimes awkward storyline. As the events are covered in the local paper by Miri’s Uncle Henry, Blume raises the question of ethics in journalism during times of disaster. In addition, the author shows how a random disaster creates anxiety in the survivors and can trigger mental instability and the breakdown of dependable family structures. These are the strongest elements of the book.
Blume was raised in Elizabeth and includes many nostalgic references to the area, including streets, restaurants, stores, and all the trends and styles of the 1950s. Anyone from that time period or with ties to northern New Jersey will enjoy these references.
I had a little trouble with the book for a number of reasons. In addition to an overwhelming abundance of characters to keep track of, it is a curious mix of young adult and adult popular fiction and I was never quite sure who the reader was supposed to be. And even though the subject of three planes crashing in a town is grave, the story itself lacks serious depth and character insight, wrapped up in close to 400 pages of sometimes fluffy descriptions and dialogue.
But, despite these criticisms and because of my ties to the area, I enjoyed reading In the Unlikely Event and would describe the book as a light and interesting read because of its historical references.
Click here to read “Some historical background and a preview of In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume”
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