Velva Jean Learns to Fly

Written by Jennifer Niven
Review by Ellen Keith

Velva Jean Hart, heroine of Niven’s debut novel, Velva Jean Learns to Drive, makes a welcome return in this sequel. Velva Jean has left her preacher husband, Harley, and her hometown of Alluvial, North Carolina, to drive to Nashville, Tennessee, in her yellow truck, following her dream of singing her songs at the Grand Ole Opry. The path to the Opry never did run smooth, and Velva Jean finds herself working as a singing waitress and rooming with the down-to-earth Gossie. When her favorite brother, Johnny Clay, looks her up, he ignites a new love in her – flying. Before too long, she’s leaving the earth behind and soaring into the air.

World War II comes along and Johnny Clay enlists as a paratrooper. An article in Life about female pilots inspires Velva Jean to enlist in Jacqueline Cochran’s WTFD (Women’s Flying Training Detachment) which trains at a base in Texas. After graduation, she and a fellow pilot are assigned to Camp Davis, a camp in North Carolina where female pilots are not only unwelcome but in danger from men who think women have no business being in the air or being in the army.

I loved Velva Jean Learns to Drive, but I love the sequel even more. Velva Jean is a character I want to be my best friend. Men come and go in her life, and some make her heart beat a little faster, but it is in the air or singing one of her songs that makes her truly feel alive. Niven’s gift for place, space, and character made me feel the heat and dust in Texas and the fear Velva Jean felt at the North Carolina base and the determination she had to prove herself. What will Velva Jean learn to do next?