In Velva Jean Learns to Drive, ten-year-old Velva Jean dreams of someday singing at the Grand Ole Opry. Her plans change suddenly, though, when her daddy disappears on one of his frequent adventures and her mama falls ill and dies. This leaves her and her brother, Johnny Clay, in the care of a resentful older sister, with plenty of time on their hands for mischief. As soon as she turns 16, Velva Jean marries the charismatic evangelist, the Rev. Harley Bright, a moonshiner’s son and former fellow mischief-maker. All this takes place in the beautiful Appalachians in North Carolina during the 1930’s, just as the Civilian Conservation Corps is carving out the Blue Ridge Parkway right through their mountainous backyard. At a time when most of her friends and neighbors had never even seen an automobile, Velva Jean somehow finds the strength to defy the social expectations of the day and follow her own dreams.
The author, Jennifer Niven, brings an authenticity to Velva Jean’s voice. Her own grandparents, the McJunkin’s, grew up near Asheville, and the summers she spent visiting them. plus her own research into her family’s history, seem to have paid off with this delightful coming-of-age novel.