Knowing I had that aforementioned hospital visit coming up soon, I headed to my local library for something to pass the time. They didn’t carry the remaining two Ramona books that would finish my re-read, so I picked up two Judy Blume books instead: Are You There God? It’s Me, Margaret and Blubber.
Having not read these since I was approximately the appropriate age (11/12), I was really looking forward to the re-read. I had fond (if vague) recollections of Are You There God? as the story of a girl’s quest for God in a house deliberately eschewing organized religion. After some admittedly half-hearted research, Margaret settles on what she’s been doing all along, electing spirituality over religion, feeling God in her private conversations with him rather than anywhere else. As a girl brought up with no organized religion in my own life, I liked this approach and still do, and was surprised to find how much I related to Margaret in this aspect when I disagreed with so much else. Margaret spends many of her conversations with God begging for breasts and her period. As a pre-teen, her excitement was baffling, because the 1970s description of menstruation (that confusing system of tabs and belts; Nancy’s weeping bathroom freak-out) sounded horrifying. (For what it’s worth, the re-released edition I read changed the application method of the Teenage Softies brand to something more modern and manageable.)
Another point where Margaret and I disagree (though maybe not entirely) is her friendship with Nancy. It’s one born of necessity, as Nancy is the first person Margaret meets after moving to town. But Nancy is smug, controlling, and prides herself on being more knowledgeable and mature than her friends, although Margaret later learns that’s completely untrue. It’s confusing that Nancy is considered her “best” friend when Margaret clearly likes Janie better, but sixth-grade politics are unfortunately hard to navigate, even moreso with an adult perspective. Besides, Nancy Wheeler is like a pleasant walk in sunshine compared to the dark stormcloud of adolescent bitchery that is Blubber‘s Wendy.
Blubber is far darker than I ever remembered it being. Narrator Jill Brenner is the main character of the book, but she’s far from the hero. Though she’s not the leader of the little group of eleven-year-old bullies that routinely torment poor Linda “Blubber” Fischer, she participates in the mayhem willingly, if not gleefully. One might argue that Jill goes along with the bullying (which in itself is darker than I recalled, since it involves not just cruel name-calling and general taunting, but physical abuse and mild sexual assault) because she’s afraid of Wendy’s negative attention being turned on her, but a conversation with her mother reveals that Jill never foresees herself being on the receiving end of this, and confident in her abilities to just laugh it off were it to happen. It’s quite horrifying, actually, to see how little Jill cares about what impact her bullying might have on Linda, as she spends the rest of her free time as a normal eleven-year-old, hanging out with her best friend, enjoying stamp-collecting. Watching her switch from one mode to the other without acknowledgement of the difference is jarring, to say the least.
Perhaps one of the best parts of Blubber is that nothing is ever fully resolved. Loyalties are changed, but no real lessons are learned. Linda is quick to change sides to torment Jill, rather than take the high road and keep herself uninvolved. Of course, her reaction is understandable, given the suffering she’s already undergone, and her desire to not have to repeat it. But it’s still sad. No one ever really talks to anyone, and there’s no adult intervention of any sort. For the most part, the people in charge are just completely oblivious, anyway. Wendy is never reprimanded for her actions. There is no crowning moment of glory where anyone truly overcomes. It’s heartbreakingly realistic in that aspect. Everyone is a little bit good and a little bit evil, the book teaches us, some tipping the scale a little more one than the other. You can’t always trust the people around you. You have to make a lot of hard decisions yourself. Bleak, yes, but brilliant.