Velva Jean Learns to Drive, by Jennifer Niven
Review by Philip K. Jason
Jennifer Niven has fashioned a delightful and probing fiction set in the remote Appalachian communities of North Carolina. We first encounter the title character, Velva Jean Hart, in 1933. She is a ten year old whose mind is beginning to turn toward serious things, like being saved at the annual Three Gum Revival and Camp Meeting. Velva Jean’s sense of herself as a sinner ready to turn a page in her spiritual life is set against her aspiration of going to Nashville to become a star performer at the Grand Ole Opry. She wonders if she can be saved and yet fulfill her dreams. As Jennifer Niven explores the next eight years of her protagonist’s life, the intersection of the sacred and the profane is the author’s moving thematic target.
Niven’s exploration of the revivalist religious dimension in the isolated and Depression-plagued mountain south is powerful, as is her evocation of family and community feeling. In a place with few paved roads and few cars, the mountain walls seem to imprison and protect the people who dwell there. Folkways and local superstitions collide with other kinds of private, public, and communal identity markers. Change comes slowly, but sometimes that change is momentous.
In an economy based on mining and moonshine, the coming of a major highway that will link the mountaintops presents, to some, a sense of opportunity and wonder. To others, it is a threat, an invasion, an intrusion of outer forces on a settled lifestyle. For Velva Jean, the road promises a future, a means to fulfill her dreams.
But she’ll have to learn how to drive.
Learning how to drive is Niven’s metaphor for learning how to take charge of one’s fate and being responsible for one’s choices. After she is gifted with an old yellow truck, Velva Jean has periods of feverish attention to caring for it and studying its workings. She also has intervals of almost abandoning the truck and its silent offer to help Velva Jean “live out there,” as her mother, on her deathbed, urges.
Throughout the novel, Velva Jean is in oscillation. She is certainly drawn to the local bad boy turned preacher whom she marries. But Harley Bright’s absorption in his ministry and his calling does not fully erase his mean, bullying nature. He disrespects Velva Jean’s ambitions and talents because they are likely to erode her image as the perfect preacher’s wife. Harley is part rebel, but he expects nothing but conformity and obedience from his wife.
Thwarted and unappreciated, Velva Jean finds some secret solace in her conversations with a blues songwriter and performer, Butch Dawkins, who recognizes her promise. More than that, he encourages her and helps her develop her talents. Does she love him more that she loves Harley? Velva Jean isn’t sure.
In and out of Velva Jean’s life are several other important men: her wandering father, who is hardly ever present; her older brother and closest sibling Johnny Clay, who is a true confidant and frequent partner in her adventures; and the feared Wood Carver, a mysterious loner whose advice helps Velva Jean find her way.
Jennifer Niven’s narrative takes advantage of calamitous events to focus its themes and its portrait of Appalachian (or “Hillbilly”) culture. One such event is a major train wreck that underscores individual and collective vulnerability and valor. The other is a violent rising up of the locals against those brought in to develop the highway, an episode that dramatizes the fear of outsiders and the need for the community to defend itself. The “outlanders” are scapegoats for all the problems and fears felt by those who flaunt their local pedigree.
Well, we know from the title that Velva Jean does learn to drive. To learn just how she does it and what it leads to requires that you read the book. In so doing, you’ll be stunned by the way in which Jennifer Niven gives voice and personality to Velva Jean, who serves as narrator. Niven’s ability to capture and imaginatively transform a slice of time and a slice of American culture is a literary treat to be savored.
Jennifer Niven is also the author of two earlier nonfiction titles: The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack. She followed Velva Jean Learns to Drive with her memoir The Aqua-Net Diaries:Big Hair, Big Dreams, Small Town. Niven developed the novel from her short film of the same name. Her fifth book, Velva Jean Learns to Fly, will be released by Penguin/Plume in September 2011.