Judy Blume will be speaking at the University of Hartford on June 21st as a fundraiser for The Mark Twain House & Museum. I’ll be interviewing her onstage and taking tons of audience questions. In preparation, I will be reading her complete works and blogging about the experience. Get your tickets here.
At a certain point in a Judy Blume read-a-thon, the reader is tempted to start referring to the books as "the period one," "the teen sex one," "the racism one," and now, "the divorce one."
It's Not the End of the World was published in 1972, right in the middle of the "divorce revolution." Due in large part to the no-fault divorce laws that began to go into effect in 1970s, the divorce rate doubled. (With that, a Stanford study shows, domestic violence rates and the female suicide rate plummeted. Go feminism!) It's Not the End of the World must have felt at the time like both a realistic novel, and a frank portrayal of divorce's effects on children.
Responsible as ever, Judy Blume first sets out to demonstrate the effect of an unhappy marriage on children. We read from Karen's point of view as her parents burst into tears over small conflicts, and then argue in the other room.
"No, I won't! You never looked at me as a person. I have feelings... I have ideas... did you ever stop to think about that?"
Amy ran into the kitchen then. She was crying. Uncle Dan picked her up and held her to him.
"Now you listen to me," Daddy shouted.
"No!" Mom hollered. "I'm tired of listening to you."
"And I'm tired of the whole business. You don't know what you want. You never did. And you never will! Because you never grew up! You're still Ruth's baby!"
There was an awful crash in the living room then and I ran in to see what happened. One of Mom's best china babies was on the floor, smashed, like the mocha-icing cake.
"That's how you settle all your problems, isn't it?" Daddy said with a terrible laugh. "Just like a two-year-old."
Mom started to cry. She bent down and tried to pick up the pieces of her antique. I think it was the first time she ever broke anything she loved.
In this scene, we really get a glimpse of Judy's future writing about adult women. It's as if all of her books take place in one whole, real world, and the perspective is constantly rotating. We know that Karen's dad is right. We also know that Karen's mom is right. Tragically, there is really no clear answer or resolution to these conflicts, no hero in this story. There is only Karen watching as her brother Jeff withdraws, her parents fall apart, and her little sister, Amy, provides unwanted comic relief ("he has pimples on his face. that's zits if you don't already know") as little kids are wont to do.
At this point, certain habits and motifs are beginning to show up in Judy's work. Grandparents are again on hand to actively participate in the child's life, just like Margaret's grandma coming to visit from New York and Tony's grandma retreating to her bedroom. Friends are starting to show up based on circumstance, and on those circumstances real friendships are made. Karen befriends a girl named Val whose mother has been divorced for a little longer than Karen's, and takes the newly distraught Karen under her wise pre-teen wing. These relationships ring true: this is how real friends are formed when we're kids. Some kinds of friends have experienced our pain just a bit before us, and by seeming worldly-wise helping us they help themselves. I'd also be remiss if I did not mention that the portrayal of the cat, Mew, as a vitally important comforting presence, is so realistic that I missed my own childhood cats Muffin and Pumpkin deeply while reading this book. Holding a cat and crying: there's nothing like it.
And how real is this fear? I feel this every day:
I have started to mark my days again. I am back to C-. I just had an awful thought. Suppose there aren't any more A+ days once you get to be twelve? Wouldn't that be something! To spend the rest of your life looking for an A+ day and not finding it.
Judy Blume did not get divorced herself until 1976. I am curious, of course, why she wrote about it so far before her own separation, but that doesn't really matter. The truth is probably something like this: divorce and its children were probably saturating the media at the time. As the comforting, realistic writer who children could turn to, perhaps she felt she needed to address it honestly. I'm sure there were many kids who were glad she did.