Velva Jean Learns to Drive

Written by Jennifer Niven
Review by Ellen Keith

In 1933, when she is ten years old, Velva Jean Hart is saved for the first time. And she is “saved” with the full sense of the theatrical implied in that word, at a revival meeting in her home of Sleepy Gap, North Carolina. Her subsequent salvations are less dramatic but more profound.

Spanning just eight years, Velva Jean’s story takes the reader from the death of her mother when she was ten to her marriage at age fifteen to a moonshiner’s son to her discovery of freedom at eighteen. When I finally lifted my head from this book, I couldn’t believe all that had happened in that short period of time; I was completely immersed in the insular world of Fair Mountain where the construction of a road to lead out of the community is viewed with deep suspicion (and some sabotage) by the locals. Velva Jean is different, though, and her mother’s dying request for her to “live out there” resonates within her as she sings, writes songs, and dreams of Nashville.

This is a beautifully realized world filled with recognizable but not clichéd characters. The reader knows that Velva Jean’s marriage to Harley Bright will derail her plans for Nashville, but like her, I was seduced by his attentions and saw, just as she did, that his transformation into a revival preacher would have consequences for their future together. Her true soul mate is her brother Johnny Clay, who gives her a bright yellow truck, inspiring a song.

Niven is the author of two non-fiction books and a forthcoming memoir, but this is her first novel. Not a misstep is taken. I was thrilled to learn she plans a sequel; Velva Jean’s story has me that captivated.