Disclaimer: I am a huge Jennifer Niven fan. I loved Velva Jean Learns to Drive, Velva Jean Learns to Fly, and Becoming Clementine. In them, I saw Velva Jean grow from a young girl in Sleepy Gap, North Carolina, to a woman who teaches herself to drive, write songs, and fly planes, and even become a spy for the French Resistance in World War II while searching for her missing-in-action brother, Johnny Clay. This latest outing of Velva Jean’s tests my love. Filmed in a newsreel returning to the States with Johnny Clay, she catches the eye of MGM and is offered a movie contract. Although the studio claims to love everything about her, they set about changing everything about her, from her hair color (making her an “American blonde”) to her name, renaming her Kit Rogers, to her singing style, putting her through the MGM factory. An old friend of hers from her flying days, having made her leap to stardom earlier, is on hand to show her the ropes, but when she dies at a house party and the studio moves into cover-up mode, Velva Jean (it’s impossible to think of her as Kit) must investigate.
While Niven captures perfectly the artificiality of Hollywood and the iron grip of the studio system in the 1940s, the rest of the book feels false. I could more easily see Velva Jean becoming a spy than I could see her submitting to everyone else making decisions for her. And, in any novel about Hollywood, it’s a challenge to mix real characters with fictional ones. Is Nigel Gray supposed to be Laurence Olivier? For Home of the Brave, should we read Gone with the Wind? “Kit Rogers” is put in a series of films about a girl pilot, and it’s hard not to see this book as part of a similar formula.