In the winter of 1952, three planes crashed in a span of three months over Elizabeth, a suburban city near Newark Airport.
Almost 120 city dwellers and airline passengers died. The crashes not only incinerated parts of Elizabeth, but also scarred a great number of its residents, who either knew someone who had died, had their homes destroyed or witnessed the crashes.
At the time, author Judy Blume was a teenager living in Elizabeth — then nicknamed Plane Crash City. Even though she lived through a harrowing piece of American aviation history, it never occurred to the author — famed young adult and adult novels such as Are you there God? It’s me Margaret, Superfudge and Summer Sisters — to write about the crashes.
It wasn’t until six years ago, while attending a reading for a memoir written about Elizabeth in 1952, that the idea for the adult novel In the Unlikely Event was born.
Blume’s new book is set in Elizabeth during those fateful three months, and follows a string of fictional characters who are connected to the crashes in various intertwining ways. Blume sifted through facts from newspaper clippings, aviation records and her own memories to fictionalize a chilling story.
Although it was more than 50 years ago, Blume says her memories of that time remain clear. She can recall where she was when hearing about the first crash on the radio; and she remembers the endless school yard speculation about the cause of the crashes: Students suspected Communists, UFOs or sabotage (at the time terrorism wasn’t even in their vocabulary).
The community did succeed in getting Newark Airport closed for a time, and then to have flights routed over water instead of land whenever possible.
They didn’t succeed in shielding their children from the trauma. The adults in Blume’s book believed that if you didn’t talk to children about what happened, their grief would disappear more quickly. The aftermath of the crashes was prolonged and far-reaching — especially for the young.
Blume has charmed millions of readers around the world with her uncanny ability to remember, to understand and to write about the world from a young person’s point of view.
In the Unlikely Event is no different. Blume excels at creating believable, vulnerable and utterly real people, including many younger characters. Set against the back drop of such a catastrophe, Blume is at her very best.
Heather Allen is an avid book reader and reviewer living in Penticton.