September Read of the Month
Velva Jean Learns to Fly
By Jennifer Niven
Reviewed by Philip K. Jason
Jennifer Niven won much praise and many readers with her first novel, Velva Jean Learns to Drive. In that book, the focus is on Velva Jean’s teen years in Depression era Appalachia. In Learns to Fly, which takes us from 1941 through 1944, Velva Jean matures into an independent, sometimes headstrong, young woman in her early twenties.
With only a seventh grade education and only the dimmest glimmer of the world beyond the Fair Mountain community of her rearing, Velva Jean takes unexpected chances with mixed results. When her marriage to preacher Harley Bright falls apart, she drives her yellow truck to Nashville to follow the dream developed in the first novel – becoming a successful singer-songwriter.
The journey in the decrepit old truck is an experience in perseverance and improvisation. When Velva Jean reaches Nashville, she finds out that most doors are closed to her – even the door of the record producer who encouraged her back in North Carolina.
She wonders if her dream can be realized, works hard at various jobs, and makes one good friend. Nashville excites her. The Grand Old Opry is her shrine. However, she discovers another yearning that overwhelms and replaces her interest in the music business: she becomes determined to be an airplane pilot.
The fascination with and early pursuit of this goal depends largely upon an extended visit from her favorite brother, the adventurous Johnny Clay, who shares her enthusiasm and encourages her – as he has done since they were very young. Taking private lessons, she learns to fly a small, fragile, and antiquated aircraft. Johnny Clay is hooked on the idea of jumping out of planes.
When Velva Jean learns about Jacqueline Cochran’s WASP effort (Women Airforce Service Pilots), nothing will stop her from being accepted into this trailblazing program. Despite initial setbacks, Velva Jean succeeds. From this point on, Velva Jean Learns to Flybecomes a very special World War II novel, focusing, through Velva Jean’s eyes, on the contribution of women aviators to the allied effort.
Even after the initial selection process for WASP, competition continues through the myriad of training courses. In the chapters that treat training at Avenger Field outside of Sweetwater, Texas, we learn how Velva Jean handles the complex body of technical knowledge she must master. This includes becoming familiar with the particular handling characteristics of a wide array of military planes.
The WASP was created to allow women to fill noncombat aviation roles so that there would be enough male pilots available to fill combat needs. Not only did men resent the fact that women were entering a formerly all-male domain, but they also saw the women getting the “soft” jobs of ferrying planes around the country.
The resentment led to a series of incidents in which planes being flown by WASP pilots were sabotaged; several women were killed by their own countryman. Not only did the women have to deal with the general hazards of aviation, but also with the testing of untried aircraft and the threat of sabotaged planes. Often, when the women had the task of towing targets for fighter gunnery practice, their planes were riddled with bullets – on purpose.
Velva Jean survived the various stages of WASP attrition to receive recognition and high-profile assignments. Her WASP experience led her to make and lose friends, sometimes tragically. It also gave her an enhanced sense of herself as a woman who could select meaningful challenges and meet them. She did her part for her country, she exemplified the “new woman” who could challenge gender role conventions, and she saved up experiences that could later be transformed into song lyrics. The more she tested herself and the more she learned about herself, the richer her expressive power became.
In a coincidence just a bit too improbable, she finds herself thrown together with her old North Carolina songwriting pal, the mysterious bluesman Butch Dawkins. Butch is on the same Texas base assigned as a “code talker,” as were many Native Americans. Reuniting with Butch restores Velva Jean to her earlier aspiration. As the novel winds down, readers will wonder if there is a future for these two, whose relationship so far has been limited and guarded.
Jennifer Niven’s ongoing portrayal of this totally engaging young woman set within a stunning vision of the American South during WWII is a major achievement. The explorations of the Nashville music industry and the WASP initiative are rich in evocative detail. And Velva Jean’s and Butch’s songs are pretty good, too.