Thursday, February 9, 2017

Book Review: Blubber by Judy Blume (1974)

When Linda Fischer gives a report on whales to Jill Brenner's fifth grade class, Jill's classmate Wendy begins calling Linda by the cruel nickname of Blubber. Soon, everyone in the class is in on the joke, and Jill is dressing as a flenser - one who removes the blubber from dead whales - for Halloween. For weeks afterward, Linda is the target of increasingly mean attacks that are both psychological and physical in nature. Jill never sees anything particularly wrong about her treatment of Linda until she crosses Wendy herself and finds the situation reversed.

My memories of reading Blubber as a child are fairly vivid. As an eleven and twelve-year-old I went through a long period of time where I had trouble sleeping. To keep myself occupied in the middle of the night, and to help myself fall asleep, I used to read the same few comforting books over and over again. Blubber was one of these. As I think back on the book, I can remember the font used for the chapter headings, the way the binding on my paperback copy was shredded and coming apart from being opened and closed so many times, and the ridiculously dated-looking cover illustration. Prior to this re-reading, I also remembered little flashes of the story: the fact that Jill collects stamps, and that she dresses like a flenser for Halloween; the fact that the Brenners' housekeeper is too old to have children, and that the family attends a bar mitzvah together.

As most girls do, I had my own issues with bullying around the time that I read this book. When I was 10, Blubber was already nearly 20 years old, but everything in it rang true, from the kids moving their desks away from Linda to avoid being near her, to the awkwardness of Jill running into Linda outside of school. These were situations I recognized, and the kids in the story very closely resembled my own classmates. I remember thinking of this book as a very realistic, and therefore "safe" story to read. No one died, and everything ended on a reasonably positive note, which is the exact kind of story a kid with insomnia wants to read at midnight when everyone else in the house is asleep.

Reading this book as an adult is a totally different experience. For one thing, I found Jill absolutely unlikable at many points in the story. She's a follower, not a leader, and she willingly causes trouble and hides it from her parents. She's a picky eater, and she complains constantly about her clothes, about her housekeeper going on vacation, and about the disappointing offerings the stamp companies send her for her stamp collection. If I had never read this book as a kid, I would seriously be questioning whether kids could like Jill since she is so unplasant. But knowing that I did like her, and that I read the book dozens of times, makes me realize that Judy Blume has a gift for seeing kids as they really are, not as adults would like them to be. Had Jill been more likable, I'm not sure she would have felt real. She's intriguing because of the truth she reflects about how girls interact with one another during early adolescence.

I was also much more troubled by the bullying scenes during this re-reading. Under Wendy's leadership, the kids in Jill's class do some truly horrible things to Linda, including forcing her to say certain things before she is allowed to enter the bathroom, and stripping her down to her underwear in front of the boys. The fact that these didn't bother me more as a kid says a lot about how commonplace this treatment must have seemed to me. As an adult, though, I kept wishing for a parent or teacher to find out what was happening and get involved. It horrified me to think that all of these things happened to Linda without a single adult ever finding out. I know it's realistic, but I don't see these characters as peers anymore. Now I think of them as potential versions of my own children, and my focus is on protecting them.

This ties into another issue that bothered me: the absolute apathy of Jill's teacher, Mrs. Minish. I think I saw her as sort of irrelevant and secondary when I read the book as a kid, but now I can't help but wonder how she could be so oblivious. She falls for blatant lies from members of her class about how Linda is being treated, and when the class is unusually quiet one afternoon after they have perpetrated something particularly horrible, she praises them for their good behavior. She is noticeably bored during class presentations and seems to harp on the students more than anything else. No doubt, in a contemporary bullying book, she would have become Linda's champion, so it was jarring to see Blume's portrayal of her as detached, ineffective, and clueless. If Blume is commenting on the attitudes of many public school teachers, she is not very far off the mark at all.

For this re-reading, I listened to the audiobook, read by Halley Feiffer (daughter of Jules Feiffer!), who was excellent. She gets Jill's brazen and sarcastic tone of voice just right in those moments when she is being meanest to Linda, but she also infuses her reading of the book with a warmth and a vulnerability that really brings the subtlety of the character to the recording. Her voice really becomes Jill's voice, and it feels like Jill is speaking to the reader on the way home from school, just as she might to her best friend.

I was expecting reading this book to simply be a fun exercise in nostalgia, but Blubber really does hold up quite well for being 40 years old, and I love it every bit as much now as I did based solely on my somewhat shaky childhood memories. I don't always love the way Judy Blume pushes the envelope in her books, but I love that she portrays these characters so truthfully without sugar-coating their flaws, and that she ends the story with a hopeful, but not completely neat, resolution. There is some language in this book, and the cruelty is a bit hard to stomach at times, but this is a book I feel I can recommend without reservation, especially to girls who have faced the issues Jill sees happening in her classroom each day. It's the most honest book about bullying among girls that I have ever read, and it definitely did its part to help me through my own tough tween times.

1 comment:

  1. I loved this, along with other Judy Blume book, when I was in school. I really should do a reread of Blubber myself. Blume is very real, and it can be both difficult, and at times too much, like in Forever, but she is a wonderful writer who I think young readers are drawn to because of the reality and how they can relate to them.

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