More power to you, Velva Jean.
“Velva Jean Learns to Drive,” by Jennifer Niven. Plume. 2009. 404 pp. $15.By Deirdre Parker Smith
“Velva Jean Learns to Drive” may not be the best title for this book ó it hardly hints at the scope of Velva Jean’s eventful life. Maybe “Velva Jean Learns to Live.”
Set in the North Carolina mountains in the 1930s and early 1940s, the story follows Velva Jean’s family through happy years and sad times, danger and delight.
It takes place as the Civilian Conservation Corps starts building “the Scenic,” what we call the Blue Ridge Parkway.
Coming of age stories seem to be a hot genre these days and some attempts fall flat. Velva Jean does not. She’s a spunky little girl whose wandering daddy leaves the family for good when her dear mama dies. Her older sister, Sweet Fern, and her good-natured husband, Danny Deal, move in to raise the remaining children, Velva Jean, Johnny Clay and Beachard.
Brother Linc Jr. is married and lives nearby. Daddy Hoyt and Granny aren’t far away, either, with Aunt Junie the faith healer up on the mountain.
Sweet Fern isn’t so sweet when it comes to Velva Jean ó she’s been jealous of her since the day she was born. Velva Jean and Johnny Clay decide to be terrible, bad children, even running away and spending a dangerous night in a hobo camp.
They keep running into the moonshiner’s boy, whose face is black with soot. He’s a fireman on the railroad, though he’s only 16. He likes trouble, gets in it just to make his mean mama and his ‘shine-makin’ daddy mad.
They all succeed in hurting the people they want to.
Velva Jean has a special gift ó a beautiful voice. She makes up songs and can sing all the old mountain ballads.
Her dream is to sing in the Grand Ole Opry, dressed in a satin shirt with fringe and rhinestones and shiny high boots.
Sweet Fern doesn’t see that happening, even when Velva Jean’s teacher offers to escort her to a contest.
Velva Jean keeps on dreaming. Her daddy never shows up, and one day, brother Beachard is recruited to work on the Scenic since he knows the mountains so well. Another family member gone.
Still Velva Jean has Johnny Clay. Sweet Fern puts a damper on that, too, no longer allowing them to share a room.
It looks like Velva Jean’s life is set ó go to school, do chores, help take care of Sweet Fern’s babies and stay put.
She can’t help but wander, and climbs up to Devil’s Courthouse to track the dreaded murderer, the Wood Carver. She firmly believes every scary story that comes down those mountains, about the Wood Carver and the evil Tsul ‘Kalu, the giant from Cherokee mythology, and all about haints and spirits.
But the Wood Carver, knows a lot about Velva Jean, and tells her she has strong brace roots ó her family. She doesn’t understand what that means at first.
When boys come around, she’s not interested, until the moonshiner’s boy shows up shiny and new, flattering and sweet.
They marry when she turns 16, she and Harley Bright, who is now a preacher, of all things.
Velva Jean was saved when she was 10, but that’s when all the bad things started to happen. She thinks maybe Harley is the answer.
He loves her plenty. He’ll do anything for her. Just as long as she’s a sweet, demure preacher’s wife and hosts the circle meetings and sits quietly in the front row of the church that is Harley’s personal message from God.
What happened to the Opry?
Temptation arrives with Butch Dawkins, a Choctaw-Creole boy come to work on the Scenic. For the first time in her life, Velva Jean hears the blues and they burn her up inside and set aflame a powerful longing.
You can guess this is the beginning of some dangerous times. Velva Jean has ideas, supported by Johnny Clay, who sees her shriveling up up there in Devil’s Kitchen.
Harley has ideas, too, and forbids his young bride from singing. Anywhere. Ever.
It cuts deeply and makes her mad enough to make changes.
She starts with the bright yellow pickup that’s been passing through her family. She’s determined to learn to drive, despite Harley’s objections.
That yellow truck represents freedom to Velva Jean, a kind of freedom she’s never had before.
She starts dreaming of the Opry again.
No path to a dream is easy, especially in Velva Jean’s tiny world. Mountain folks have powerful feelings and quick tempers.
When the terrible things start to happen, Velva Jean makes up her mind. Harley Bright is not her world. Fair Mountain is home, but the Scenic runs in two directions: It brings people in and it takes people out.
Velva Jean has learned from her loving family and the Wood Carver, that she has someplace to go, and the only way to get there is on her own.
It’s a comfortable story, with likeable characters and beautiful scenery and strong, justifiable emotions.
The book covers a time a place long gone, but held close in memories. Maybe one day, author Jennifer Niven will tell us what Velva Jean learns next.
Jennifer Niven will be at Literary Bookpost Wednesday from 5-7 p.m. for a reception, reading and book signing of “Velva Jean Learns to Drive,” her first novel.