Several decades later, Blume still fires up imagination

In the Unlikely Event by Judy Blume, Alfred A. Knopf, 2015, 402 pp.

By David Strom

David Strom

David Strom

SAN DIEGO — In the late 1950’s through the late 1960’s I taught sixth graders in an elementary school in Michigan. Many of the young readers enjoyed the writings of Judy Blume and so did I. Recently I was given a gift of Judy Blume’s latest novel In the Unlikely Event. Not having bothered to keep up with Blume or her writing since the late sixties I wondered if this latest work would capture my older, possibly matured, imagination. It did.

In 1952, when Judy Blume was a teenager growing up in Elizabeth, New Jersey, three commercial airliners crashed into the heart of that city killing all the pilots, most of the airplane passengers, destroying and taking the lives of some in their burning and crushed homes on the ground. Judy Blume witnessed some of these events and now writes about it in her latest novel.

Miri Ammerman, a teenager in 1952, witnessed the three crashes that took place in Elizabeth. Now thirty-five year later and living in Las Vegas she struggles mentally with whether or not she should return to commemorate the tragic happenings. Eventually curiosity tips the scale in favor of returning and seeing some off her old school friends and possibly meeting her first serious boyfriend, Mason McKittrick.

Mason McKittrick after one of the planes crashed close to the orphanage where he lived in 1952 became a local hero. He along with several others, including his older brother, risked their lives to save some of the injured passengers from the burning debris of what was left of the crashed airplane. Henry Ammerman, a young reporter for the local newspaper, interviewed many witnesses to the recent disasters, including Mason. Mason became a local celebrity in school and community. Henry Ammerman became a newspaper celebrity because of his accurate on the scene reporting. Shortly after one of the plane crashes, Miri rushes to find if Mason is OK. What she finds is Mason’s sexual relationship with a young mother. Immediately afterwards Miri and Mason sever their close relationship.

Henry Ammerman, Miri’s uncle, lived with his mother, Irene Ammerman, Rusty Ammerman his older sister and his niece Miri. Irene was widowed and Rusty was raising Miri without the help of a husband who was believed killed during the Second World War. Miri discovers that her biological father is alive and lives on the West Coast. During that fateful year 1952 she secretly meets with him in Elizabeth. He is married with two young children living in the west. It was painful for Miri meeting her father for the first time and that it would be agonizingly more hurtful for Rusty, Irene and Henry. In essence Henry was Miri’s true surrogate father.

Rusty Ammerman very rarely dated. When she returned home from her work in Manhattan, she and Miri and many times Henry, when he wasn’t working on a newspaper assignment, would eat the dinner prepared by Irene. She was a great cook, a wonderful baker, a great emotional guide to Miri. Miri often wondered to herself did she have relatives in the area and where were they? She knew Rusty would not answer these painful questions nor would Henry or Irene.

Miri came home early from school one day and heard her mother and another person having sex in her mother’s bed. She peeked in and saw Dr. Osner, the family dentist, making love to her mother. Shocked she quickly closed the door. She pondered the situation, and gave it some deep thought. Dr. Osner was the father of Miri’s best friend Natalie Osner. And he was married.

Dr. Osner, trying to save his marriage, asked his wife to move with him to Las Vegas where he is offered a good paying job, and a partnership in a “state of the art” dental building in a rapidly growing city. With a change of venue he hoped to turn his marriage around She refused going to Vegas and moved back to her family and southern hometown. This opens the door for Rusty and the Dr. to marry. Dr. Osner, Rusty, Irene and Miri settle in Vegas in 1952. Henry, now married, takes a newspaper job in Washington, D.C.

To memorialize the events of thirty-five years earlier people from all over the United States who witnessed some or all of the tragedies gathered together in Elizabeth. One of the speakers was Miri, her uncle Henry and other dignitaries. Looking over the audience and auditorium stage Miri sees Mason, on the stage and he glances at Miri too. She rises to deliver a small composition she wrote as an eighth grade reporter for the school paper in 1952. But in 1952 the principal wouldn’t allow it published. Now she slowly reads it:

After enough time it fades and you’re grateful.
Not that it is ever completely gone
It’s still there, buried deep, a part of you.
The stench is gone from your nostrils now
Unless someone leaves the kettle on to boil and forgets about it.
The nightmares have tapered out.
There are more pressing things to dream about, to worry over,
to keep you awake at night.
Aging parents, adolescent children, work, money the state of the world.
Life goes on, as our parents promised that winter.
Life goes on if you are 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 a time and a place.
We’ll always be connected by that winter.
Anyone who tells you different is lying.

Miri sits down and soon the honor service is over. Glancing and rising she walks slowly over to Mason remembering her passionate days thirty-five years earlier while they were teenagers in love. After kissing Miri on the cheek, Mason invites her to a party at his house that evening. She wonders if she should go, is there still an unfulfilled passion? What?

Forty or more years ago, Judy Blume captured my imagination with her earlier writings. With her latest work, she still does. This is love story between and among three generations; a story of individuals growing through painful times; a history that cannot be erased through the passage of time and will be passed on to the grandchildren of those who lived through these rough waters.

Judy still captures my imagination.

*
Strom is professor emeritus of education at San Diego State University.  He may be contacted via [email protected]

 

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