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Velva Jean Learns to Drive

A coming-of-age tale about a young girl growing up in Appalachia in the decade before World War II.

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There was a time when America was largely a collection of small rural towns. Folks made their livings off the land, got together for camp meetings and potluck suppers, and sent their kids to one-room schoolhouses – when they didn’t need their help in the field. That’s the world evoked quite charmingly in Velva Jean Learns to Drive, a debut novel by Jennifer Niven.

“I was ten years old before I was saved,” is the novel’s almost irresistible first line, as the narrator, young Velva Jean, starts to unfold for readers the details of her life in the wildest part of the Smoky Mountains in the decade before World War II.

Her large family includes siblings like bossy older sister Sweet Fern and beloved older brother, best friend, and coadventurer Johnny Clay. Their daddy is a charismatic itinerant gold miner whom even Velva Jean understands to be a bit unsteady (“Daddy was what Granny called ‘charming,’ something I knew to be bad by the way her voice turned flat when she said it”). Their mama is a sweet, shy saint. One grandpa, Daddy Hoyt, is a healer who does his work with herbs and spells learned from his part-Cherokee wife.

They all live together in Alluvial, a town that blossomed during the 1840s gold rush, but faded shortly thereafter, leaving behind only a Baptist church, a school, three houses, a general store, and a post office. It may not sound like much to some, but to Velva Jean, a well-loved youngster, it’s a hive of activity and event, especially when she’s left on her own to play outdoors with Johnny Clay and hear stories from Granny about “the bandits and the panthers and the haints that roamed the woods.”

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