In the novel Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven, Velva Jean- the main character- is on an exploration of her identity and the world surrounding her. Velva Jean continuously prays to be saved from Hell; she has hopes of changing her destiny drastically. Velva Jean Hart’s sole dream in life is to sing at the Grand Olde Opry in Nashville and in pursuance of this dream she sings her way through life. While each character must overcome a tumultuous cycle of ups and downs that life throws their way, Velva Jean truly perseveres and transforms into a triumphant character.
Taking place in the South this novel is an anomaly in comparison to any other Southern novel; the novel attempts to describe the lives of Southern individuals throughout such a tumultuous era in history. Velva Jean is on her own journey attacking each trial and tribulation, which is presented to her. Niven succeeds in giving voice to the community and Hart family. Velva Jean must overcome the harshness surrounding her ranging from her destitute and decrepit father, to her over bearing and demanding sister, to her husband who truly attempts to destroy her spirit. As she says in her own songs she has to “gotta change something or die.”
Not only does Velva Jean persevere but she leads her life in such a way that she becomes an example to others to persist. Velva Jean’s survival techniques force her to conform to a society where she is destined to become an outlander because she dreams of having more than the mundane life as a housewife. The determination behind Velva Jean can be described in one sentence, she truly is a woman to be reckoned with.
“The strongest trees are the ones that bend with the storms … those are the trees that remain after the storm is gone. At the same time, the tree knows not to give itself up. It stands its ground. It bends, but it doesn’t break. And it’s still there.”
Velva Jean Learns to Drive is a moving tale about overcoming the odds and one’s own ability to take risks and overcome the adversity that surrounds them. Jennifer Niven triumphs in describing the lives and tales of the South, where many authors may only touch on the issues that surround their characters. She ignites the readers by presenting issues of invasion, war, and hardships. Niven herself takes a risk in describing a difficult time when many Southern families are starving and searching for more.
This novel is more than a coming of age story it transforms into a story about the South and one woman’s triumph over the condescending family that surrounds her. Jennifer Niven’s novel truly alters our view of this time period and intrigues the reader to learn more about a time period that has been lost between two harrowing wars that destroyed the lives of many individuals. In the end of the novel Niven presents you with these questions: Doesn’t everyone deserve to be saved? Shouldn’t everyone get a second chance to make amends and lead a more righteous life?
Book Club Questions:
Questions adapted from Penguin Guides
1. The novel begins “I was ten years old when I was saved for the first time.” Do you think that this beginning is beneficial for the future of the novel or would you prefer to start in a different matter?
2. Velva Jean’s life changes drastially after her mother dies and she is abandoned by her father. Velva Jean is searching for more in life and in people, she attempts to cross boundaries and barriers that surround her. How would you behave if you were presented with the same situation?
3. Velva Jean is constantly looking for a male figure in her life. She need their support and encouragement and in the end she triumphs over every obstacle in her life. During this time and especially with those who surround her, would you be able to triumph like she does?
4. Sweet Fern is everything that Velva Jean doesn’t want to be and that is exactly what she becomes (at least for a short while). Do you feel sorry for Sweet Fern and her destiny? Why?
5. As a child Velva Jean is looking for all things dangerous and this is represented through Harley Bright. Yet, he makes a miraculous change and so does Velva Jean in order to belong. What affect does this have on Velva Jean and her spirit?
6. Velva Jean connects with the Wood Carver and forms a kinship, he plays an important role in her life. Why?
7. Velva Jean receives the Yellow Truck from Johnny Clay and she immeadiately wants to escape but lacks the support in herself. Slowly but surely she learns to drive. What does the Yellow Truck symbolize for Velva Jean?
8. Velva Jean and Johnny Clay attempt to escape their mundane lives; they each attempt to leave their lives in favor of something more. Why do they rely on each other? They each feel so much love and friendship with each other. Describe this relationship and how they support each other?
9. The Scenic is not only a road in but out. The road plays an important role is this novel, how? Why?
10. Do you think Jennifer Niven describes the lives of of the Fair Mountain residents and the South appropriately? Was Velva Jean’s character believable?
Velva Jean Learns to Drive is available on Amazon.com
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