In the Unlikely Event

9781101875049_p0_v2_s260x420When reading Judy Blume’s In the Unlikely Event, I remembered a writing prompt from Sister Eugene Marie’s composition class – listing ten people, with short biographies; only five would survive a catastrophe.  The writer decides not only who will live or die, but how the event affects others.  In Blume’s book, actual air crashes near Newark airport in the 1950s trigger a fictionalized version of survivors and those whose lives were accidentally cut short.

The story revolves around Miri, a fifteen year old girl who lives in Elizabeth, New Jersey –  a small town on the flight path of the airport and the site of three fatal airplane crashes within three months.  The lives of Miri’s family and friends intersect with some of the passengers, creating dramatic possibilities and unlikely heroes, sometimes changing lives. True love blossoms and fades; panic draws a disparate community together.  As Blume jumps from one character’s thoughts to another, the relationships between the chorus of players can be hard to follow, but eventually her constant return to Miri saves the narrative.

Although Blume uses real dates for the air crashes (and in her afterward refers to her own experience living in the area at the time),  the time frame of the fifties lends a surreal value to living with unexpected terror.  This is the time of McCarthy’s relentless campaign seeking Communists, Sputnik heralding the possibilities of outer space and possible extraterrestrials, the draft of young men into the Korean War – and Blume weaves all of them into the story.  These New Jersey school children who were taught to duck and cover, cowering under desks to avoid a bomb, were suddenly in the path of a crashing plane.  The news is dramatic, and Henry, Mira’s uncle, finds his vocation as a newsman reporting the facts, and interviewing relatives of the victims.

Blume’s strength is getting into the heads of her characters, especially children.  When they are confused and terrified, when they are juggling the uncertainties of the world around them, and when they discover each other’s flaws, the story is at its best.  The airplane crashes are just the vehicle for following their lives.  Blume begins the story with the promise of a reunion thirty years after the events, flashes back to the time of “the umbrella of death,” and finishes by revealing how all the surviving characters grew up to lead productive lives.

The story moves slowly, but if you are a fan of Judy Blume, you’ll find yourself once again immersed and empathizing. “Terrible things can happen in this life…” warns one of the characters, but Blume suggests that how we get through them matters.


Catherine the Great

From obscurity to greatness –  with the help of an ambitious mother –  Catherine the Great offers insight and historical context with drama.

After eight years of research and writing, Robert K. Massie leaves nothing out.  Through a dense and fact filled documentary, Massie manages to reveal the human personalities, and suddenly you are in the eighteenth century – with court deceptions, dukes and emperors trading lives for power, royals using overwhelming wealth to show favor or take it away, secret lovers, lives ruined for the wrong allegiance – a great way to learn history.

Massie, who won the Putlizer for his Peter the Great, creates a suspenseful plot with the innumerable facts at his disposal, and he manages to instill humanity into the historical icons as if they were characters in a play. The result will have you attending to his words, and reading for the next installment as Catherine’s life unfolds. Nevertheless, I found myself dozing off in some sections; this is a slow methodical read and you will have to persevere to reach the end.

Becoming Catherine

Ensconced in posh surroundings, weighted down with jewels and silver, the teenage German princess is summoned by the Empress Elizabeth, daughter of Peter the Great, to be betrothed to the heir of the Russian throne, an immature and petulant boy.  They have no choice but to marry, but it’s nine years before the marriage is consummated.  In the meantime, Catherine has learned the language, converted away from German Lutheranism to Orthodox Russia, and solidified her ambition to someday be Empress.

Massie uses letters and references to document the saga – many from Catherine’s own memoirs – and he maintains interest by inserting humorous episodes when they are available.  In attending a ball with the men dressed as women and the women as men (better to show off Empress Elizabeth’s legs), Catherine writes:

The very tall Monsieur Sievers… was wearing a hoop skirt the empress had lent him…Countess Hendrikova, who was dancing behind me, stumbled over the hoop skirt as he turned…I fell beneath the hoop skirt which had sprung upright beside me…there we were all three of us, sprawling on the floor with me entirely covered by his skirt.  I was dying of laughter trying to get up…no one could get up without causing the other two to fall down.”

Not all is balls and frivolity.  Massie describes poignant moments of despair, and illnesses that almost sever ties.   In his thoroughness, he relates every toothache, court gossip, and secret – some are entertaining.  Catherine’s invention of a side-saddle she could unobtrusively switch to ride astride to avoid her mother-in-law’s criticism foreshadows Catherine’s later “triumphant entrance into the capital” riding in uniform on her horse as the new ruler.

Empress Catherine

Pages of colorful portraits of the principals divide the book, with the first two hundred pages providing the background to the second half – Catherine’s reign.  Like other powerful women, Catherine overcame obstacles, asserted her independence, and managed people as well as countries.  She learned early that people prefer to talk about themselves, and she listened.  But she believed in “enlightened autocracy – what I despair of overthrowing, I undermine.” Massie writes that…

“she was intelligent, well-read, and a shrewd judge of character… She softened imperial presence with a sense of humor and a quick tongue.”

By writing her Nakaz, a suggested code of laws that condemned torture and capital punishment, and endorsed the principle of the  “equality of all before the law,” Catherine hoped to lead her country away from the feudal rules of serfdom.  She founded Russia’s first College of Medicine, established hospitals, and became one of the first to be inoculated against smallpox. Her collection of art gave her the reputation as “the leading prospective customer for all owners with major collections,” and she housed her holdings within magnificent architecture.  Catherine was a reader, motivated by the “dullness” of her husband.  She wrote in her memoirs: “When he left me, the most boring book seemed delightful.” Massie notes that she “always kept a book in her room and carried another in her pocket.


To maintain the historical momentum, Massie finishes each section of Catherine’s life, and then backtracks to comment on others who influenced her.  He manages to insert Voltaire’s life into the mix as well as King George of England’s problems with the “colonies.”  John Paul Jones, Father of the United States Navy, has a cameo appearance in the Russian war with Turkey.  This zigzagging can be distracting, but without providing the information, Massie’s portrait of Catherine would not be as complete or understandable.



Her personal life was never forgotten; although she suffered through a miserable marriage with Peter (who she may have managed to have assassinated), she had at least a dozen lovers – usually young handsome guards – and had three children.  Massie’s chapter on Catherine’s “favorites” offers insight into a powerful woman who was lonely and yearning for love.  She found it many times, and with Potemkin, ten years her junior and possibly her second husband,  sustained a relationship that survived – even after both took other lovers. Potemkin became powerful in his own right, building cities, “ruling southern Russia like an emperor…{and gave} Russia access to a new sea.”

Her Children

Massie ends his saga with Catherine’s progeny, specifically Paul, her son (whose father could have been either her husband Peter or a lover).  Massie reminds you who everyone is and where they came from, eventually focusing on her son’s second fruitful marriage to Sophia/Maria – yielding nine grandchildren, and her favorite, Alexander.  Although Catherine groomed Alexander from a young age to be her successor, his marriage never produced an heir, and the dynasty passed on to Nicholas, Alexander’s younger brother and Catherine’s youngest grandson – the one who had “escaped her strict supervision.”  Not even an Empress can control everything.

Massie’s Marvel

Robert K. Massie

Massie tells Catherine’s life from her point of view and, for the most part, turns dry historical facts into a readable and entertaining story full of intrigue and messy politics.  Catherine the Great: Portrait of a Woman may be one of those books that is good for you to read, as well as a good read.

A magnificent history lesson – and you won’t have to take a test after digesting it.

Read about another powerful historical woman: Cleopatra

The Language of Flowers

Periwinkle to inspire tender recollections, lilies of the valley to bring a return to happiness – with the hidden meaning of flowers to sooth a troubled soul, Vanessa Diffenbaugh’s The Language of Flowers is as full of enchantment as it is about foster care.   Victoria, an orphan since she was abandoned as a baby, has been defiantly in and out of foster homes.  At eighteen, she is “emancipated” from her last group home and sent out into the world – homeless, without an education or any prospects.  Flowers are her only salvation.

Diffenbaugh alternates chapters from Victoria’s memories of her only loving temporary home with Elizabeth, who patiently taught her about flowers and nurtured a connection that becomes her safety line – to Victoria as she tries to forge a life as an itinerate worker with a local florist.

As she struggles to overcome her past as an unwanted child, shuffled through the social services system, Victoria’s sense of self is cautious, with low expectations that are repeatedly met by everyone in her life.  She carries her scars into adulthood, mistrusting the possibility of friendship or love.  Living one step above homelessness, Victoria manages to create a career with her knowledge of flowers; her talent for using flowers to solve problems brings her success and a new life.

Diffenbaugh includes an index of flowers with an interpretation of their application; if you enjoy books that use flowers or herbs for creative therapeutic solutions, add this one to your list.

Another book with flowers that can change your life:

  • Hot House Flower and the Nine Plants of Desire