There was a time when America was largely a collection of small rural towns. Folks made their livings off the land, got together for camp meetings and potluck suppers, and sent their kids to one-room schoolhouses – when they didn’t need their help in the field. That’s the world evoked quite charmingly in Velva Jean Learns to Drive, a debut novel by Jennifer Niven.
“I was ten years old before I was saved,” is the novel’s almost irresistible first line, as the narrator, young Velva Jean, starts to unfold for readers the details of her life in the wildest part of the Smoky Mountains in the decade before World War II.
Her large family includes siblings like bossy older sister Sweet Fern and beloved older brother, best friend, and coadventurer Johnny Clay. Their daddy is a charismatic itinerant gold miner whom even Velva Jean understands to be a bit unsteady (“Daddy was what Granny called ‘charming,’ something I knew to be bad by the way her voice turned flat when she said it”). Their mama is a sweet, shy saint. One grandpa, Daddy Hoyt, is a healer who does his work with herbs and spells learned from his part-Cherokee wife.
They all live together in Alluvial, a town that blossomed during the 1840s gold rush, but faded shortly thereafter, leaving behind only a Baptist church, a school, three houses, a general store, and a post office. It may not sound like much to some, but to Velva Jean, a well-loved youngster, it’s a hive of activity and event, especially when she’s left on her own to play outdoors with Johnny Clay and hear stories from Granny about “the bandits and the panthers and the haints that roamed the woods.”
But Velva Jean’s childhood idyll does not endure for long. Her mama dies within the first 40 pages of the book and nothing is ever quite the same again. Left in the care of the overbearing Sweet Fern, Velva Jean begins to run wild, kicking against the constraints of her narrow world. Without a real plan as to how to arrive there, she longs to take her beautiful singing voice to Nashville, where she dreams of becoming a star at the Grand Ole Opry.
She hits an obstacle on the way, however. As a pretty young teen she encounters Harley Bright, the local moonshiner’s son now refashioned into a charismatic traveling minister, “every bit as handsome as Gary Cooper,” with “eyes like flashes of clear green fire.” They marry the day after her 16th birthday and Harley soon makes it clear he doesn’t want his wife singing – ever.
Niven is a skilled enough writer not to turn Harley into a one-dimensional monster. Instead, along with Velva Jean, readers watch as time passes and Velva Jean discovers “new versions” of Harley: “weak Harley, scared Harley, mean Harley.” But the Harley she fell in love with does not entirely fade and she sticks with him, even learning to have tender feelings for her moonshiner father-in-law.
The central drama of the rest of the book becomes the question of Velva Jean’s future: Will she reconcile herself to life as Mrs. Harley Bright – or will she take her talents on the road and try her luck in a larger world? But even as she ponders her destiny, her world is changing around her, as the United States government plans an interstate highway that will crash through their mountains and “outlanders” arrive to begin working on it.
Some of the writing in “Velva Jean Learns to Drive” is a bit broad. The impending highway looms large as a symbol of the outside world and we are frequently reminded that it is “a road of unlimited horizons,” “a miracle in the making.” There is also a saintlike, misunderstood character named the Woodcarver who lives alone, shunned, at the top of a mountain, who appears at opportune moments to offer Velva Jean oracular pronouncements and counsel. (“I would say that your light is never in danger of going out” and “There is a difference between running from something and running to something” are among the samplings of his wisdom.)
But Velva Jean, especially in the first part of the book, makes a charming, bright-eyed narrator (sometimes in her youth bringing to mind that other delightful young rural protagonist: Scout of “To Kill a Mockingbird”). And the disappearing world that she evokes is engagingly drawn but never idealized. Niven – who has her own roots in the region – allows her story to remind us that while a simpler, more rural America had its colorful charms, it was no paradise. Wild animals and drunken xenophobes are real dangers, and poverty and seclusion take an exacting toll.
And yet, despite it all, it is hard not to enjoy the romance of images like the one that opens the book: a little girl, pondering questions of salvation, tucked up in bed under the tin roof of a narrow house, with the “high, lonesome cry” of a panther in the background.
Marjorie Kehe is the Monitor’s book editor.