Jennifer Niven won much praise and many readers with her first novel, Velva Jean Learns to Drive. In that book, the focus is on Velva Jean’s teen years in Depression era Appalachia. In Learns to Fly, which takes us from 1941 through 1944, Velva Jean matures into an independent, sometimes headstrong, young woman in her early twenties. With only a seventh grade education and only the dimmest glimmer of the world beyond the Fair Mountain community of her rearing, Velva Jean takes unexpected chances with mixed results. When her marriage to preacher Harley Bright falls apart, she drives her yellow truck to Nashville to follow the dream developed in the first novel – the dream of becoming a successful singer-songwriter.
The journey in the decrepit old truck is an experience in perseverance and improvisation. When Velva Jean reaches Nashville, she finds out that most doors are closed to her – even the door of the record producer who encouraged her back in North Carolina. She wonders if her dream can be realized, works hard at various jobs, and makes one good friend. Nashville excites her. The Grand Old Opry is her shrine. However, she discovers another yearning that overwhelms and replaces her interest in the music business: she becomes determined to be an airplane pilot.
The fascination with and early pursuit of this goal depends largely upon an extended visit from her favorite brother, the adventurous Johnny Clay, who shares her enthusiasm and encourages her – as he has done since they were very young. Taking private lessons, she learns to fly a small, fragile, and antiquated aircraft. Johnny Clay is hooked on the idea of jumping out of planes.
When Velva Jean learns about Jacqueline Cochran’s WASP effort (Women Airforce Service Pilots), nothing will stop her from being accepted into this trailblazing program. Despite initial setbacks, Velva Jean succeeds. From this point on, Velva Jean Learns to Fly becomes a very special World War II novel, focusing, through Velva Jean’s eyes, on the contribution of women aviators to the allied effort.
To see the full review as it appears in Southern Literary Review, along with an author interview and a review of the first Velva Jean novel, click here: Jennifer Niven | Southern Literary Review