Friday, June 20, 2014

Fiction Review: Velva Jean Learns to Fly

When my book group first chose Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven, I have to admit I was afraid it might be too light for my reading taste. However, the fast-paced plot of the novel, the historical context, and the likable character of Velva Jean pulled me in right away. I not only thoroughly enjoyed the historical novel but I also found it interesting and thought-provoking.

This novel is actually a sequel to Velva Jean Learns to Drive, but we had no problem picking up the story and character without reading the first book. As this book opens, Velva Jean is driving her yellow truck (which she apparently learned to drive in the first book) away from her home in the Appalachian Mountains and toward Nashville to fulfill her dream of singing at the Opry. She’s actually a very good singer and even has a record of a single that a traveling music recording professional recorded of her and her brother singing a song she wrote. The catch is that Velva Jean has never left her secluded little town in the mountains and has never been on her own before.

In the first part of the book, Velva Jean settles into life in Nashville, finds herself a job and an apartment, and starts trying to make a singing career for herself. Before long, the U.S. joins World War II, and Velva Jean’s priorities change, as she learns to fly and decides she wants to become a pilot and help in the war effort. A lot happens after that, but to say any more would give away too much (no spoilers here!).

One of the inspiring things about Velva Jean is that she has been through a lot of rough times, but she still keeps smiling and pushing forward. Here, she muses on how life’s challenges affect us (many of her challenges referred to here occurred in the first novel):

“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 and your daddy going away, heartbreak over your husband, heartbreak over a boy that died. You just started adding these things to your suitcase until the case got heavier. You still had to carry it around wherever you went, and even if you set it down for a while you still had to pick it up again because it belonged to you and so did everything inside it.”

I enjoyed both the Nashville and the pilot sections of the novel, though some of our book group members clearly preferred the pilot portion. That’s where the author brings a lot of real-life history into the story. Although women pilots were allowed to help with certain tasks, like transferring planes from one location to another, they were not an official part of the military and were not welcomed by many of the male pilots. Our group found the most interesting discussion material in those aspects of the novel, about the plight of newly minted women pilots wanting to help with the war effort but facing discrimination that sometimes reached dangerous levels.

Many of our book group members were delighted to hear that the author has written more novels about Velva Jean, so anyone who wants to know what happened to her next can read Becoming Clementine, about her adventures as spy in France, and American Blonde, about her time in Hollywood (to be released July 29, 2014). Velva Jean’s varied adventures set against fascinating historical backdrops make for good summer reading (and this one even qualifies as a Big Book)!

410 pages, Plume


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