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June 27, 2012

Velva Jean – An Unlikely Heroine

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Written by: Jampala Chowdary
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As I walked into the local library a few weeks ago, I saw a display of several books on the theme of flying. Browsing through them, I came across, Velva Jean Learns to Fly. The unusual name intrigued me enough to borrow it. As I read through the book, I learned of an earlier novel, Velva Jean Learns to Drive, a prequel. Impressed by the Learns to Fly book, I borrowed the one about learning to drive as well.

The two books describe the story and times of young Velva Jean Hart, an innocent ten year old mountain girl from the backwoods of the Carolina Appalachians growing up in the great depression of 1930s. She eventually becomes a bomber pilot during the second World War.

We first meet Velva Jean Hart in 1933 in the first book of the series, Velva Jean Learns to Drive, as a ten year old girl living with her parents, siblings and grand parents in a small house on the Fair Mountain in the Appalachian region of North Carolina. The whole area is full of mountains and forests with wild flora and fauna. There used to be several gold mines in the area, all of them almost abandoned by this time except for an occasional prospector trying his luck. Velva Jean’s father, Lincoln Hart, is one such prospector, a peripatetic wanderer unable to stay put at home for long.

Not too far away from her home is Alluvial, a small town with a train station, general store and a school. Though there is a railway line and an old cattle road, Alluvial and the people living in the mountains are not well connected with the rest of the world and live in their own small world. There is a rumor that the government is building a new highway across the mountains, the Blue Ridge Parkway. The locals refer to the new road as the Scenic, and are quite concerned that this new highway may disrupt their way of life.

Young Velva Jean’s dream is to sing at the Grand Ole Opry, wearing an outfit of rhinestones. She can sing well and has even started to write songs of her own. One day, the ten year old learns that unless she is ‘saved” and accepts Jesus and agrees to live her life for Jesus, she will end up in hell. She gets perturbed. Not wanting to go to hell, she ends up getting saved (baptized) by the local preacher. The same day, her daddy leaves a note for Mama and leaves the house. Mama falls sick, never recovers and eventually dies. On her death bed, Mama tells Velva Jean, “Live out there. That’s where you belong.” Velva Jean blames all these changes in her life on being saved.

Velva Jean is devastated by her Mama’s death. Her older sister Sweet Fern moves in to take care of her and the rest of the younger siblings. Velva Jean and Johnny Clay, the brother she is closest to, resent Sweet Fern’s authority and start acting out. They even run away from the house, jumping on a train, only to return home after some harrowing experiences including being attacked by a panther at night in the jungle. After that, they return to a normal routine though Velva Jean had to quit school. She befriends the mysterious Woodcarver, a fugitive felon, who resides in the Devil’s Courthouse on the Witch Mountain. The gentle, considerate, cryptic and wise Woodcarver does not seem to be the cruel demon that he is made out to be in the local lore. The work on the Scenic continues to progress and has come to the mountains near her home. As the local folks are getting worried about outside forces coming into their area and destroying their way of life, the storeowner, Mr. Deal, notes that the Scenic is ‘not only for people coming in but also for people going out’.

Velva Jean gets attracted to Harley Bright, a charismatic preacher whom she knew earlier as a rambunctious kid, gets ‘saved’ a second time, and ends up marrying Harley. She becomes a housewife taking care of the husband and the widowed father-in-law. She endeavors to become the perfect preacher’s wife, leading the women’s activities at Harley’s Little White Church. She has almost forgetten her dream of singing at the Grand Ole Opry. Harley, spending more and more time with his church, becomes increasingly possessive and jealous. He does not want Velva Jean to sing. Johnny Clay gifts his old yellow truck to Velva Jean. She learns to drive the truck on her own to the surprise and scorn of her husband. Velva Jean becomes friends with Butch, a Native American blues singer and guitarist, in town to work on the Scenic. Butch helps Velva Jean rediscover music and helps her to write new songs. She even manages to get a singing audition with a record company and gets a record made. Harley gets jealous of her friendship with Butch and rouses his followers in the Church into a frenzy against the ‘outsiders’ and manages to drive out from the area all the outsiders including Woodcarver and Butch.

At the end of the first book, Velva Jean, now an eighteen year old young woman who has learned to drive on her own and tired of Harley’s possessiveness and his actions, decides to leave him and starts driving on the Scenic to Nashville, the home of the Grand Ole Opry. The Scenic is not just for people coming in but for people going out, and her Mama told her that she should live out there.

In the second book, Velva Jean finds that it isn’t easy to get to sing at the Grand Ole Opry. She is struggling to get a record made and keeps working as a waitress waiting for a break. In the meantime, Pearl Harbor gets bombed and America is drawn into World War II. Her brother Johnny Clay signs up to be a paratrooper. Waiting to be called up for service, he decides to get trained as a pilot and persuades Velva Jean into joining him. The flight instructor finds that Velva Jean has natural instincts for flying. After Johnny leaves for the Army, Velva Jean learns about the Women’s’ Flying Training Detachment, an auxiliary program of women pilots for the Army Airforce started by Jacquelyn Cochran, one of America’s most famous woman pilots and the first woman to fly a bomber across the Atlantic Ocean. Though Velva Jean does not have the minimum education required to be in the program, she gets into it anyway through sheer persistence, initiative and sincerity.

Once in the program, Velva Jean becomes one of the top pilots in the program, which eventually becomes the WASP (Women Airforce Service Pilots). Before the program can get its due recognition, this pioneering group of women pilots has to deal with blatant discrimination, harassment and sabotage. Velva Jean deals with all this and succeeds. At her base in Camp Davis, she runs into Butch and starts writing songs again. The novel ends with a 22 year old Velva Jean piloting a B17 bomber across the Atlantic Ocean and joyously singing about living beyond the keep.

Together, these two novels cover 12 years in the life of Velva Jean Hart, as the ten year old insecure mountain girl becomes a 22 year old self assured young woman literally flying high. In the process, the writer introduces us to the life in the mountains hillbilly life (as it is contemptuously described) of the 1930s, Nashville and the country music scene in the early 40s, and the glorious Women Airforce Service Pilots and the evolution of the WASP. Jennifer Niven, the author, writing with autheniticty and raw power, has the knack of making every character and scene come alive. Besides the many dynamic family events and squabbles, a train jumps the tracks in the mountains, a highway gets built against extreme odds, a church gets built, fortunes are made, a bunch of girls become pilots, records get made, people fall in and out of love, several planes get wrecked under different conditions, some of them quite spectacularly.

Velva Jean Hart turns out to be a remarkable heroine. She is at once innocent, insecure, extremely gifted and totally unaffected. “The fairest girl in Fair Mountain or anywhere else”, is how Harley Bright once describes her. The record company executive Mr. Reynolds thinks that she has the potential to be a great singer. With the aid of a couple of manuals, she learns on her own how to drive a truck, take apart the engine and put it back together. Her flying instructor has never seen anyone take so naturally to flying. She ends up being selected to fly the B-29 super fortress, a plane that most male pilots were afraid to fly. She survives a massive plane wreck. She makes a record and makes the cover of the Life magazine. She gets married, and then literally drives herself out of the marriage when the husband she so loved becomes an oppressive fundamentalist zealot. She flies out to the baddest town in Mexico just to get a divorce. She sounds like Superwoman, a mythical heroine. However, what makes Velva Jean endearing is that she does all these things without trying to be a heroine or a superwoman. Some things she does because she very much wants to do them, some because she is pressured, some because she is challenged, some because she got mad at something or somebody, and some because it is the right thing to do. This courageous young woman with a big heart values fairness and cannot withstand injustice whether it is being done to her or others.

In the course of this novel, we come across many memorable characters: Daddy Hoyt, the grandfather who knows how to cure people’s illnesses with the herbs around the jungle, Aunt Zunie who can cure illnesses with her spells, the wise, mysterious and kind Woodcarver, her brothers Johnny Clay and Beachard, her daddy and Mama, Sweet Fern the elder sister who puts her dreams on hold to take care of the young siblings, Sweet Fern’s husband Danny Deal who loses his life trying to rescue a stranger in a train wreck, the moonshiner, the mountain folks, the crew building the Scenic, her fellow flyers in the WASP program that surmount incredible odds to serve the country.

Velva Jean Learns to Drive is a very enjoyable novel in the ‘coming of age’ genre. Velva Jean Learns to Fly is an entertaining and engaging tribute to the incredible women that served with pride and spirit as Women Airforce Service Pilots despite the shbby treatment they got from their bosses and colleagues. I am looking forward to the next book in the series.

***********

Velva Jean Learns to Drive
Jennifer Niven
2009
404 pages
(Amazon link here and Flipkart link here)

Velva Jean Learns to Fly
Jennifer Niven
2011
412 pages
(Amazon link here and Flipkart link here)

www.jenniferniven.com



About the Author(s)

Jampala Chowdary

చికాగో మెడికల్ స్కూల్‌లో సైకియాట్రీ ప్రొఫెసర్ డా. జంపాల చౌదరికి తెలుగు, సాహిత్యం, కళలు, సినిమాలు అంటే అభిమానం. తానా పత్రిక, తెలుగు నాడి పత్రికలకు, మూడు తానా సమావేశపు సావెనీర్లకు, రెండు దశాబ్దాలు, కథ-నేపథ్యం కథాసంపుటాలకు సంపాదకత్వం వహించారు. ఉత్తర అమెరికా తెలుగు సంఘం (తానా), ఫౌండేషన్ ఫర్ డెమోక్రాటిక్ రిఫారంస్ ఇన్ ఇండియా (ఎఫ్.డి.ఆర్.ఐ.), మరికొన్ని సంస్థలలోనూ, కొన్ని తెలుగు ఇంటర్నెట్ వేదికలలోనూ ఉత్సాహంగా పాల్గొంటుంటారు; చాలాకాలంగా తానా ప్రచురణల కమిటీ అధ్యక్షులు. తానాకు 2013-2015కు కార్యనిర్వాహక ఉపాధ్యక్షుడిగా, 2015-2017కు అధ్యక్షుడిగా ఇటీవలే ఏకగ్రీవంగా ఎన్నిక అయ్యారు. పుస్తకం.నెట్‌లో జంపాల గారి ఇతర రచనలు ఇక్కడ చదవవచ్చు.



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