Judy Blume’s Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret (1970)
The world of Are You There God, It’s Me, Margaret is the late 1960s, when religion and belief in God was a lot more ubiquitous than it is now. Even a child not raised in any religious tradition was still culturally embedded in a belief in God. This is just one of the things that first stands out to me about this book, rereading it after many years.
I really enjoy this story. It is not merely about a young girl going through puberty, even though that it often how it gets summed up, and in fact the sexual element is only a small part of what Judy Blume conveys with the character of Margaret.
Margaret is a character that I can relate to somewhat. She is an only child who just moved to a new suburb. Even prior to her move, it does not seem that she had many friends, since no one from before her move is ever mentioned again in the novel. Transportation was not so arduous in the 1960s that she would not have at least made plans to visit an old friend on a weekend, or talked to them over the phone. Margaret thus wanted to make a new start in her new neighbourhood and school and make a group of friends.
She does find friends, and they are not a bad crowd. They do seem to be in a hurry to grow up – insisting on wearing bras whether or not they needed them, anxious to get their periods (until they do…), and wanting a safe place to gossip about boys and crushes – but there is little bullying and the girls do have a genuine friendship. This book was the first place that I ever heard the word “pre-teen” – nowadays, Margaret and her friends would be described as typical pre-teen girls. For them, growing up was exciting and interesting. And yet, Margaret is not quite like them.
For sure, she is interested in her identity. She wants to fit in and is worried about her place in the world. However, for Margaret, bras and periods are just the surface – physical reassurances that she is indeed growing up right. What she is interested in is something deeper, more meaningful, and strangely not discussed much.
Margaret’s parents were raised in separate religions. In the twenty-first century, that is not highly unusual, but it was less common in the early 1950s when Margaret’s parents would have gotten married. Her father was Jewish and her mother was Christian (denomination unknown). They decided that they would not practice any religion and not raise their daughter with any religious background. Since Margaret believes in God, it is likely that her parents still do as well. However, as religion and God are not discussed in her home, Margaret is left to figure out her relationship with God on her own.
That relationship is quite intimate, even as Margaret feels that God is above some questions (He isn’t above any questions, she figures out by the end). God is her friend and confidante. She has one-sided conversations with Him. He is there for her. But as she matures into a young woman, her child-like relationship with God is called into question.
She delves into the topic of religion for a school project, only to see the ugly side of it. What she hears and sees people do and say in the name of God is like having her best friend and grandfather slandered. She sees discord and confusion about God – her innocent certainty about Him is called into question. She even decides that she no longer wants to talk to Him because she feels that He has abandoned her and her family.
Her search for a closer connection with God and a better understanding of religion causes rifts that had been pasted over within her family to be ripped open, as her parents and grandparents fight over her. Margaret wants to belong. Her parents, by not choosing a religious identity for her, inadvertently cut her off from all that is good about religion as well. She lacked a community. She lacked spiritual guidance. She lacked a relationship with her grandparents. When she did finally establish a relationship with her paternal grandmother, her grandmother still wanted to win her over to Judaism.
In short, this book is about how Margaret’s relationship with God changes as she matures. The physical changes in her body only mirror these spiritual changes. They are outward signs that God has not abandoned her and that she is maturing into her own identity. No one can take her relationship with God from her.
As an adult, I would like to know what happened to Margaret and her faith later in life. Did she decide to adopt either of her parents’ former religions? Did she renounce God as she undoubtedly struggled through high school, as we all do in some way or another? Did her friends or boyfriends laugh at her faith and convince her to give it up as childish foolishness? Did her parents come to realise that while they might be fine on the religious front, they needed to support their daughter on her own religious path? Did their own marriage survive?
Despite some dated references, this book is not stuck in the 1960s. It serves as a good story as well as a helpful guide for young girls in their pre-teen years. Margaret’s story is universal for all women. It strikes a chord with me in particular because I am also an only child and religious. It is also an excellent introduction to God and religion for young people who have not had much of a religious upbringing at all, or even those who have been brought up as atheists. After all, God is not going anywhere. Religion is deeply rooted in humanity. As Margaret’s case shows, you can’t just ignore God – even if anything to do with sex is a good distraction.
Blume, Judy. (1970). Are You There, God? It’s Me, Margaret. New York : Yearling Books. 149 pgs.