Set in Appalachia in the years before World War II, Velva Jean Learns to Drive is a poignant story of a spirited young girl growing up in the gold-mining and moonshining South. One Sunday when she is ten years old, Velva Jean Hart is saved. Life soon brings unwelcome changes: her loving mother dies, and her father leaves on one of his "adventures." While Velva Jean's bossy older sister runs the home, Velva Jean consoles herself by singing and finding companionship with Johnny Clay, her rebellious brother; the infamous Wood Carver, rumored to have killed a man; and, sometime later, Harley Bright, a juvenile delinquent-turned-revival preacher. As their tumultuous love story unfolds, Velva Jean must choose between keeping her hard-won home and pursuing her dreams.
Jennifer gives an overview of the book:
I was ten years old when I was saved for the first time. Even though Jesus Himself never had much to do with religion before He was twelve, I had prayed and prayed to be saved so that I wouldn’t go to Hell. Mama had never mentioned Hell to me, but the summer after my tenth birthday, on the night before the yearly Three Gum Revival and Camp Meeting, my daddy told me that I might have to go there. He said that’s where sinners went, and that everyone was a sinner until they were saved.
“Have I been saved?” I asked him.
“No, Velva Jean.” He was polishing the handheld pickaxe he sometimes used for gold mining. The front door was open and a faint breeze blew in off the mountain. It was still hot, even at 10:30 at night. Somewhere, far away, there was the high, lonesome cry of a panther.
“I don’t know. Maybe you ain’t opened yourself up to the Spirit.” Daddy’s face was quiet and blank so I couldn’t read it. His one good eye—the one that wasn’t blind—wasn’t dancing like it normally did. It was always hard to know if he was mocking or serious on the subject of religion.
“How do you know I ain’t saved?” I asked a lot of questions, something my daddy never had much patience for, especially in the heat.
“Because you’d know it if you was.”
I thought about this, trying to remember a time when I might have been saved without knowing it. I couldn’t think of one and suddenly this worried me. “What happens if I don’t get saved?”
“It means that you’re ‘astray like a lost sheep,’ and that after you die you’re going straight to Hell.” Daddy laughed. “That’s why your mama and me prays every night for our children.”
For a moment, I couldn’t speak. What did he mean I was going to die? What did he mean I was going to Hell? I didn’t want to go to Hell. Hell was for the convicts down at the prison in Butcher Gap or the murderer who lived on top of Devil’s Courthouse. Hell wasn’t for decent people. I was sure my mama wasn’t going to be there, or Daddy Hoyt or Granny or my sister Sweet Fern or Ruby Poole or Aunt Bird or Uncle Turk or Aunt Zona and the twins. Probably my brothers Linc and Beachard weren’t going to Hell either, but I wondered about Johnny Clay. And then I began to cry.
One of the greatest things I hear from readers is "Velva Jean changed my life." Maybe she's helped them remember a dream they'd put aside, encouraging them to go after it once and for all. Velva Jean has certainly changed my life too, and she reminds me that we need to "live out there" while we can.
Jennifer Niven lives in Los Angeles (where her film Velva Jean Learns to Drive won an Emmy Award and she once played the part of Shania Twain in a music video). Even though she's always wanted to be a Charlie's Angel, her true passion is writing, and her first...
Velva Jean Learns to Fly
By Jennifer Niven
Reviewed by Philip K. Jason
Jennifer Niven won much praise and...
During World War II, more than 1,000 women pilots ferried fighter jets and other military aircraft in a program started by Jacqueline Cochrane called Women Airforce Service Pilots (WASP). It is into this...