Over a period of about two months during the winter of 1951-52, three separate planes approaching or leaving from Newark Airport crashed in Elizabeth, New Jersey, killing a total of 119 people. One plane hit an apartment building; another skimmed the roof of a school. The unlucky town’s mayor dubbed the airport, which closed for several months in the wake of the accidents, “the umbrella of death.”
Elizabeth native Judy Blume (STEINHARDT ’61) was 14 at the time, and her latest book, In the Unlikely Event (out in paperback in May), revisits that trio of tragedies from her youth. But the novel—her first for adults in 17 years, and one that took her five years to write—isn’t so much a story about plane crashes as it is a tender reflection on adolescent love and heartache, the truths from which parents try to protect their children, and the decisions and compromises that make us grown-ups. Readers who came of age on Starring Sally J. Freedman as Herself, Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret, and Forever may find a kindred spirit in protagonist Miri Ammerman, who is in ninth grade when catastrophe strikes, and whose return to Elizabeth 35 years later frames this multigenerational, multifamily story.
NYU Stories caught Blume on the phone after a busy day working to open a bookstore—a branch of Miami’s Books & Books—in Key West, where she has a home, to talk about the 1950s, the problem with the “young adult” label, and her conviction that life itself is a series of unlikely events.
For In the Unlikely Event, why did you choose to look at the plane crashes primarily through the eyes of teenage Miri and her cohort?
Probably because I was 14 when it happened—I was there. I know that no adults talked to the kids about it. We were left on our own to try to figure this out. The boys at school thought it was aliens or Communists—they needed a reason for it. The smartest girls said that it was “sabotage,” and the rest, who wanted to be smart girls, agreed. Then we all went to the dictionary to find out what sabotage really meant! We tried to make sense of all this ourselves. But this story is about the adults, too, and how your outlook changes when something like this happens. My father used to say life is for the living, and so you carry on. You go to work, you go to school, you fall in love, you fall out of love, you argue with your best friends. But you keep going.
In the book you present a range of different ways that the characters try to cope with the grief and anxiety that these tragedies caused. What was that process like in your own life?
I must have buried this story. I must have buried the feeling, the anxiety or whatever, so deep inside. My daughter became a commercial airline pilot, and when she read this book she said, “Mother, how could you never have told me this story?” I never told my husband of 36 years. I never told anybody, and you know, I will talk about anything. It is amazing to me that it was locked away for so long. I think I was just meant to tell it now, as my final long, complicated novel.
Are you a nervous flier?
No, not really. I’m still in touch with a lot of my friends from growing up, and I don’t know anybody who doesn’t fly. I was never really nervous, but I do think that after writing this book for some reason I am much calmer. I don’t know the point of being afraid, really. You might as well enjoy it because you never know when you’re going to step off a curb and get hit by a truck. Just like in the book, life is a series of unlikely events, and you never know what’s coming.
The character of Henry Ammerman, a newspaper reporter covering the aftermath of the crashes, emerges as a kind of hero in the book. What role do journalists play in helping us make sense of disasters?
If this happened today, think about how we would all run from school or work to put on the TV or pull out our tablets—however we get the news. But back then there was nothing like that, so the only people who could tell us these stories were the journalists and the photographers who worked with them. They had to paint a picture for us, because unless we were there and saw it, there just wasn’t any other way to know. A lot of the language in the book, like “the plane fell to the ground like an angry wounded bird” or “the plane broke apart like a swollen cream puff,” came from real news reports. I never could have come up with it.
Can writing be a form of healing? Is it for you?
Yes, I think writing can be very cathartic. When troubled people write to me, especially troubled young people, I don’t have answers for them, but I tell them that I am sure writing the letter helped, and that continuing to write down these feelings may help them. I never kept a journal, frankly, but I know it can be very helpful!
So many of the young women in the novel struggle with tough choices surrounding love, sex, motherhood, work—quandaries readers may find familiar in 2016, though the story takes place in the 1950s.
Some things never change—like falling in love and what do you do about it. The feelings are the same, but the details are different. You know, a character like Christina today, if she were smart, she would be using some kind of birth control. She would know that she could have an abortion if she chose to—that is something that is totally different than it was for my generation. Boy, we knew that we had better be careful. We knew that if we got pregnant our lives would change forever. Several very smart girls in my high school did get pregnant and so were forced into early marriages.
You’re known for writing frankly and sensitively about adolescence in your books for young people. In the Unlikely Event is also, in a sense, about growing up, but it is clearly geared toward adults. Does that mean there’s not such a difference between “young adult” fiction and the rest?
I hate labels and categories like that. Mind you, I have never written YA books. That category was something that happened after I wrote my early books—after Forever. But now, of course, yes, I’d put Forever on the shelves with the YA books. As for this question of whether someone 30 years old can read YA—I think anybody should be able to read whatever they want and not be embarrassed by it. I was into my parents’ bookshelf at 12, finding John O’Hara and all these books, and though I certainly didn’t understand everything about them, I was interested in the world of grown-ups—what were they about?
Why are adolescent characters so compelling, even for adult readers and writers?
You know, if I had never written for young people nobody would ask me about this. But because I am known for that, when I write an adult novel that has young people in it, I’m asked, “Why couldn’t this be a young adult novel?” It’s really hard to answer that question. I mean now people are always asking if Catcher in the Rye would’ve been published as YA. The fact is that many writers like to write about young people in their adult books. Because it’s a time of life when you don’t necessarily get it, and you are trying to. Everything is in front of you. It’s a tough time of life, and an interesting time.