Jennifer Niven has fashioned a delightful and probing fiction set in the remote Appalachian communities of North Carolina. We first encounter the title character, Velva Jean Hart, in 1933. She is a ten year old whose mind is beginning to turn toward serious things, like being saved at the annual Three Gum Revival and Camp Meeting. Velva Jean’s sense of herself as a sinner ready to turn a page in her spiritual life is set against her aspiration of going to Nashville to become a star performer at the Grand Ole Opry. She wonders if she can be saved and yet fulfill her dreams. As Jennifer Niven explores the next eight years of her protagonist’s life, the intersection of the sacred and the profane is the author’s moving thematic target.
Niven’s exploration of the revivalist religious dimension in the isolated and Depression-plagued mountain south is powerful, as is her evocation of family and community feeling. In a place with few paved roads and few cars, the mountain walls seem to imprison and protect the people who dwell there. Folkways and local superstitions collide with other kinds of private, public, and communal identity markers. Change comes slowly, but sometimes that change is momentous.
In an economy based on mining and moonshine, the coming of a major highway that will link the mountaintops presents, to some, a sense of opportunity and wonder. To others, it is a threat, an invasion, an intrusion of outer forces on a settled lifestyle. For Velva Jean, the road promises a future, a means to fulfill her dreams.
But she’ll have to learn how to drive.
The link given below will take you to the full text of the most recent of my several reviews for Southern Literary Review. Others can be found via the link on the menu bar to the right.
Velva Jean Learns to Drive, by Jennifer Niven – http://pulsene.ws/161PG