Let me begin by saying I love to read. I could list all those reasons you’ve heard before, but I will boil it down to this: I read for that one book. That book that holds my attention, sparks my imagination, makes me feel. I read for that one protagonist I fall madly in love with, the one I can see parts of myself in, and other parts that I wish I could see in myself.
I have a short list of these protagonists: Harper Lee’s Atticus Finch, Chris Cleave’s Little Bee, Sara Gruen’s Jacob Jankowski. And without a doubt, Jennifer Niven’s Velva Jean.
Jennifer Niven reminds me why I write. In the hopes that one day I might be able to develop a character so real that my readers nod “yes, that’s it exactly.” In the hopes that my words – just my words - might move someone to tears.
I devoured Velva Jean Learns to Fly a few weeks ago. To the detriment of my children who had no clean clothes for the piles of dirty laundry, and no real dinner, because I quite simply could not put it down.
Velva Jean is an old friend of mine. Before she learned to fly, she learned to drive, and I was along for that ride last year. Before I happened upon Velva Jean Learns to Drive in the bookstore, I'd never heard of Jennifer Niven. But I liked the title (yes, sometimes I do judge a book by its cover...at first). In the simplest of terms, this is the story of a young girl coming of age and finding her way. If you've ever felt that there was something inside of you yet to be discovered, you can relate to Velva Jean. It is a story that weaves its way into your soul. A story worth reading.
But I digress, this is not about Velva Jean learning to drive...it's about her learning to fly. It's about a young woman who leaves everything she knows and loves to make a way for herself, despite being unsure and alone. It's about a young woman who chooses to follow her dreams, even when those dreams at first can't be realized.
Singing at the Opry is Velva Jean's life's dream. The story opens as she sets out in her old yellow truck towards Nashville - towards her future – on a dream and a promise: to “earn her leaving home.”
Velva Jean may come from extremely modest beginnings, but she is grounded in her convictions and not afraid to take chances. And as she begins to experience the world "out there" she realizes singing might not be her only dream. The setting is 1940s America. As news of Pearl Harbor spreads throughout the country, and young men are signing up in droves to fight, Velva Jean decides her new dream is to join the Air Force.
We sit shotgun with Velva Jean on her journey, and all the while she lets us in to her innermost thoughts, and floors us with her simple, profound observations.
To wit: Growing up, her older brother Beach was always wandering off, leaving messages carved into tree trunks wherever he went. When he joins the war, he becomes a hero, risking his life to save countless others. Velva Jean reads the newspaper articles about him and muses: “I thought this was just another way of carving his messages.”
When she is faced with a task she is dreading, she tells herself that this is just “one of those things that couldn’t be helped but that you wished you could get out of – like … telling your mama good-bye forever.”
Velva Jean uses her own experiences as insight into other people. She sees another couple while at dinner with her husband and wonders, “If they were as happy as they seemed or if maybe one of them didn’t like the other all the time and wanted to get in a truck and drive away and never look back.”
We see her determination when she fills out the divorce form, and seeing that there is no space on the form for “Wife’s job” she fills it in herself… “Pilot.”
In just one line from a secondary character, we understand what an incredibly talented singer she is: “Behind me I heard Janie say, ‘Good grief, Velva Jean. Sally wasn’t lying.’”
Secondary characters take on important roles for us readers. They give us insight into Velva Jean that even she cannot divulge. Velva Jean tells her friend, Butch Dawkins, that she doesn’t think she can write music any more. She admits that all she can think about is airplanes. Butch replies, “Maybe you’re still learning to fly.” It’s a powerful statement, and one that allows us to see something in Velva Jean that she doesn’t yet see in herself.
With little formal education, Velva Jean relies on her gut instincts to get her through. And not only does she survive, she thrives. Her real world analogies prove to be far more insightful than even she realizes:
The more things that happened to me, the more I thought it was like carrying a suitcase – you kept adding things to it like your mama dying or your daddy going away, heartbreak…you just started adding these things to your suitcase until the case got heavier. You still had to carry it around wherever you went.”
Velva Jean shows us that most life lessons aren’t learned in a classroom. Her inquisitive, kind nature endears us. Her strength and determination inspire us. We grieve with her losses, and cheer with each small victory. Velva Jean is wise beyond her years, beyond her education. She excels at everything she puts her mind to, whether that’s singing, writing lyrics or flying. She’s modest, but also proud. Maybe that’s why we love her.
Jennifer Niven takes the reader deep inside the heart and soul of Velva Jean. It’s what makes us feel so tied to her. We feel as though we know her on a deeply intimate level. We see pieces of ourselves in her. And if not, we wish we did. We root for her, cry with her, laugh with her and hold our collective breaths while she takes on the world, one dream at a time.
Velva Jean set out in that old yellow truck on a single dream and a promise. I could tell you what happens to her, if she realizes her dream, if she “earns her leaving home.” But then you wouldn’t have the distinct pleasure of reading the book.