When tragedy strikes, it is often hard to remember what life was like before. In an instant, your perspective on the world changes: new frustrations arise, out of not understanding or denial; comfort is disrupted by fear; a piece of your life can be ripped from you with no chance of returning. Tragedy can come with growing older, changing family structures, world events that may challenge our way of living; all things we can at least make a good attempt at trying to grapple with maturely.
But what about children? Parenting styles differ, of course, but in order to protect them from tragedy, protect them from having to grow up too fast because of an event out of their control, perhaps even protect them from the scariness of the adult(s) in their lives not being able to provide them with an explanation of a tragic event, the simplest thing to do is just to reassure them that everything will be fine; they will be fine.
The children in Judy Blume’s novel, In the Unlikely Event, for the most part, cannot be protected from the tragedy (tragedies) that befalls their town of Elizabeth, New Jersey, no matter how hard their parents try. The horror for the reader is created by learning about and learning to like those who are going to perish, and the interviews published in the town’s newspaper. As the children are navigating the winding roads of adolescence, falling in love, and conflicting familial relations, they have to worry about the chance of their world literally crashing down at any moment.
Just when the story becomes so tangled and so changed does Judy Blume shoot us 35 years into the future, when the children have grown up and [in most cases] moved out. Back in Elizabeth to commemorate the string of tragedies, we realize not only were those incidences a small fraction of most of the characters’ lives, but the smaller “what if” ripple effects of those incidences don’t seem to matter as much as they once did.
Although the large tragedies marked turning points in the novel, it was the smaller, more personal tragedies that made me feel close to each individual; made my gut wrench with childhood realizations that broke not only their hearts but mine; made me appreciate the scattered, pleasurable indulgences of happiness that offered optimism for what was ahead. And what was ahead? What is always ahead: the future.
“…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’re 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.”
– From Miri’s Speech¹
Judy Blume, In the Unlikely Event (New York: Alfred A. Knopf, 2015)