All my life, I’ve had all kinds of friends, many of whom would never get along with each other. One of the best things about being a voracious reader is being able to hang out while reading with so many different kinds of writers: highly literary writers, mystery, thriller, science fiction, and fantasy writers. Those who write lovely sentences, those who help me understand life, those who keep me up all night by the power of their stories, those who make me laugh out loud, and so many more. Every one of them brings me something I need, just like my different friends.
Then there is Judy Blume, who possibly could be friends with anyone. I came to her late because while she was publishing her novels for young readers and teens, I was already an adult reader. My first Judy Blume book was Summer Sisters in which I learned that I was not alone as far as what goes on between girlfriends in their teens and how we drift apart. Then one day I got completely blocked as a writer when it came to writing about sex in the early days of puberty. I read Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Deenie. I was saved.
In this latest and sadly last novel, she brings it all together. Miri Ammerman is a 15-year-old fatherless girl. Of course she has a father somewhere but she has never met him and her mother Rusty keeps it all a mystery from her. It is December, 1951 and the first of three planes to crash over Elizabeth, NJ, comes down in a ball of fire landing upside down in the Elizabeth River and killing all passengers and crew. Miri is traumatized but not as badly as her best friend Natalie who comes to believe that a young dancer named Ruby, killed in the crash, now inhabits her mind and body.
By the time the third plane in less than five months crashes over Elizabeth, Miri has met her father, has fallen in love with an orphan teen, and Natalie has landed in a home for girls with eating disorders. Even then, secrets are still being revealed about her father, her mother, Natalie and her family, as well as her boyfriend. One might think this story contains an overabundance of incident for one year in the life of a teenage girl, but these plane crashes actually happened that year in Elizabeth, NJ, where Judy Blume grew up. And though a year sometimes seemed boring beyond belief for me as a teen, when I look back it is astounding how many changes I went through per year of high school.
I also grew up in New Jersey in what was then a relatively small town, so I am sure Judy Blume got it right as she traced the numerous and varied connections between the people in this story. It made me think about how rich life is; how family issues and events in the work life of adults and the twelve years of school between first grade and high school graduation contain so much love, heartbreak, and growth for all concerned.
The novel begins with Miri taking a flight back to New Jersey 35 years after the crashes and ends with her making the journey back to her adult life in Las Vegas. Between those bookends is the story of Miri and her teen years. She became a journalist just like her beloved Uncle. She has the complex problems of any middle-aged married woman with kids. Her first love lives in her memory as the best love ever and her life as a teen, despite all the emotional upheaval, carries the wonder and the weight that made her who she is.
If this is really Ms Blume’s last hurrah as a novelist she is leaving us with a story, told without fuss or trickery as though she were sitting right there with you. It is the story of an American woman. I think it is worthy of a Pulitzer. On sale June 2nd.