Velva Jean Learns to Drive by Jennifer Niven

  Table of Contents


  Title Page

  Copyright Page




  ~ 1933 ~






  ~ 1934 ~




  ~ 1935 ~






  ~ 1938 ~







  ~ 1940 ~








  ~ 1941 ~















  Jennifer Niven’s first book, The Ice Master, was named one of the top ten nonfiction books of the year by Entertainment Weekly, has been translated into eight languages, has been the subject of several documentaries, and received Italy’s Gambrinus Giuseppe Mazzotti Prize. Her second book, Ada Black jack, was a Book Sense Top Ten Pick and has been optioned for the movies and translated into Chinese, French, and Estonian. Velva Jean Learns to Drive is the author’s first novel, and in 2009 Simon & Schuster will publish a memoir about her high school experiences. Niven has conducted numerous writing seminars and addressed audiences around the world. She lives in Los Angeles.


  Published by the Penguin Group

  Penguin Group (USA) Inc., 375 Hudson Street, New York, New York 10014, U.S.A. • Penguin Group (Canada), 90 Eglinton Avenue East, Suite 700, Toronto, Ontario, Canada M4P 2Y3 (a division of Pearson Penguin Canada Inc.) • Penguin Books Ltd., 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England • Penguin Ireland, 25 St. Stephen’s Green, Dublin 2, Ireland (a division of Penguin Books Ltd.) • Penguin Group (Australia), 250 Camberwell Road, Camberwell, Victoria 3124, Australia (a division of Pearson Australia Group Pty. Ltd.) • Penguin Books India Pvt. Ltd., 11 Community Centre, Panchsheel Park, New Delhi - 110 017, India • Penguin Group (NZ), 67 Apollo Drive, Rosedale, North Shore 0632, New Zealand (a division of Pearson New Zealand Ltd.) • Penguin Books (South Africa) (Pty.) Ltd., 24 Sturdee Avenue, Rosebank, Johannesburg 2196, South Africa

  Penguin Books Ltd., Registered Offices: 80 Strand, London WC2R 0RL, England

  First published by Plume, a member of Penguin Group (USA) Inc.

  First Printing, August 2009

  Copyright © Jennifer Niven, 2009

  All rights reserved

  Photo of truck interior courtesy of Brian Griffin. Photo of Mama McJunkin on p. 401 courtesy of Jennifer Niven.



  Niven, Jennifer.

  Velva Jean learns to drive : a novel / Jennifer Niven.

  p. cm.

  eISBN : 978-1-101-05779-7

  Without limiting the rights under copyright reserved above, no part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in or introduced into a retrieval system, or transmitted, in any form, or by any means (electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise), without the prior written permission of both the copyright owner and the above publisher of this book.


  This is a work of fiction. Names, characters, places, and incidents are either the product of the author’s imagination or are used fictitiously, and any resemblance to actual persons, living or dead, business establishments, events, or locales is entirely coincidental.

  The scanning, uploading, and distribution of this book via the Internet or via any other means without the permission of the publisher is illegal and punishable by law. Please purchase only authorized electronic editions, and do not participate in or encourage electronic piracy of copyrighted materials. Your support of the author’s rights is appreciated.


  For Mom, who first gave me the keys and taught me how to drive, and who showed me that I could go anywhere

  And for John, who was with me on the journey

  For Granddaddy Jack—gentleman, magician, hero, friend—who gave me the mountains

  And for his parents, Samuel Jackson McJunkin,

  one-eyed buck dancer,

  and Florence Fain, player of the autoharp,

  who filled those mountains with music

  Something is calling her homeward—

  Bidding her spread wings and fly

  Up from the valleys and hillsides

  Into the bright golden sky.

  —Words and music by Velva Jean Hart


  Thanks to all the folks who believed in Velva Jean, in the story, in me, and who hopped aboard that yellow truck. Velva Jean has found a wonderful home at Plume with some amazing people: Clare Ferraro, Kathryn Court, Cherise Fisher, John Fagan, Liz Keenan, Joan Lee, and the fabulous sales team. Thanks to Eve Kirch for designing such a beautiful book, and Melissa Jacoby for creating the perfect cover. Thanks to Everett Barrineau for his enthusiasm, and the superb Norina Frabotta, for all her work in helping Velva Jean take shape. It was a joy to work with my fantastic editor, Carolyn Carlson, who enabled Velva Jean to make her journey. My agent and friend John Ware remains one of my greatest supporters, and his guidance and wisdom are invaluable. Huge thanks to my family, especially my mom—sage editor, best friend, all-knowing mentor—who first gave me the story, and John Hreno, who drove miles and miles to see that it was told. To all my McJunkin relatives, who shared laughter, pictures, and tales of my daddy’s people. And to my friends, too many to name, but particularly Joe Kraemer, Angelo Surmelis, and Scott Berenzweig who, along with the Jonas Brothers, Disneyland, snacks, and BGS moments, helped me stay sane, and Sheryl Monks and Valerie Frey, who swapped stories and cheered me on from the outset. Further thanks to literary kitties Lulu, Satchmo, and Rumi; classic truck wizard John McClellan; photographers Stephen Hunton and Brian Griffin; the Foxfire Museum & Heritage Center; the Blue Ridge Parkway and the U.S. National Park Service; the Southeastern Railway Museum; Bit Creek Primitive Baptist Church (for Sacred Harp singing); Brushy Mountain Prison; and gold panning champion Johnny E. Parker, buck dance champion Thomas Maupin, and wood carver Charles Earnhardt for inspiration. Lastly, I’ll always be indebted to the American Film Institute, where Velva Jean made her debut, and to Jack Angelo, Yoram Astrakhan, Larry Chew, Beth Shea, and Lars Wodschow, original passengers in the truck.

  ~ 1933 ~

  I am saved by his love,

  Saved by his light,

  He has filled me with joy,

  Changed dark into bright,

  He has showed me the way to the great Glory Land,

  Oh Jesus, my Jesus,

  Beside you I stand!



  I was ten years old when I was saved for the first tim
e. Even though Jesus himself never had much to do with religion before he was twelve, I had prayed and prayed to be saved so that I wouldn’t go to hell. Mama had never mentioned hell to me, but the summer after my tenth birthday, on the night before the yearly Three Gum Revival and Camp Meeting, my daddy told me that I might have to go there. He said that’s where sinners went, and that everyone was a sinner until they were saved.

  “Have I been saved?” I asked him.

  “No, Velva Jean.” He was polishing the handheld pickax he sometimes used for gold mining. The front door was open and a faint breeze blew in off the mountain. It was still hot, even at ten thirty at night. Somewhere, far away, there was the high, lonesome cry of a panther.

  “Why not?”

  “I don’t know. Maybe you ain’t opened yourself up to the Spirit.” Daddy’s face was quiet and blank so I couldn’t read it. His one good eye—the one that wasn’t blind—wasn’t dancing like it normally did. It was always hard to know if he was mocking or serious on the subject of religion.

  “How do you know I ain’t saved?” I asked a lot of questions, something my daddy never had much patience for, especially in the heat.

  “Because you’d know it if you was.”

  I thought about this, trying to remember a time when I might have been saved without knowing it. I couldn’t think of one and suddenly this worried me. “What happens if I don’t get saved?”

  “It means that you’re ‘astray like a lost sheep,’ and that after you die you’re going straight to hell.” Daddy laughed. “That’s why your mama and me prays every night for our children.”

  For a moment, I couldn’t speak. What did he mean, I was going to die? What did he mean, I was going to hell? I didn’t want to go to hell. Hell was for the convicts down at the prison in Butcher Gap or the murderer who lived on top of Devil’s Courthouse. Hell wasn’t for decent people. I was sure my mama wasn’t going to be there or Daddy Hoyt or Granny or my sister, Sweet Fern, or Ruby Poole or Aunt Bird or Uncle Turk or Aunt Zona and the twins. Probably my brothers, Linc and Beachard, weren’t going to hell either, but I wondered about my youngest brother, Johnny Clay. And then I began to cry.

  Later that night, when me and Johnny Clay were lying in our beds pretending to sleep, I whispered, “If you was to die, would you go to hell?” I had shared a room with Sweet Fern until she got married, and then Johnny Clay moved in with me.

  There was silence from his bed and for a moment I thought he might actually be sleeping. Then he said, “I guess.”

  I sat straight up and looked at him, trying to catch his face in the darkness to see if he was fooling or not. He rolled over and propped himself up with one arm. “Why you want to know about hell, Velva Jean?”

  “Daddy says if we ain’t saved, that’s where we’re going because we’re all sinners till we been born again.”

  Johnny Clay seemed to consider this. “I guess,” he said again.

  “I’m going to get myself saved,” I said, “if it’s the very last thing I do. I ain’t going to hell.”

  “Even if I’m there?”

  “It ain’t funny, Johnny Clay. I’m answering the altar call at camp meeting and I’m going to pray and pray for Jesus to save me.”

  “You don’t even know how to pray, Velva Jean.” Johnny Clay was smart. He was twelve years old and he knew everything about everything. He’d been an expert gold panner since he was nine, he’d been driving since he was ten, and at school he was the marble champion three years running. He was also the bravest person I knew. I just worshipped him.

  “I know, but I’m going to start praying anyway. I’m going to start doing it right now.” And I got out of my bed and kneeled down beside it and closed my eyes tight. I tried to remember how Mama always began. There was a sigh and a rustling from Johnny Clay’s bed, and then he was beside me on the floor, hands clasped.

  “Okay, Lord,” he said. “Please be merciful on us sinners. Please don’t let us die anytime soon. And if we do, please don’t send me and Velva Jean to hell. We just can’t stand it if we die and go to hell.”

  “Amen,” I whispered.

  The first day of camp meeting I could barely sit still. “Stop fidgeting,” Sweet Fern hissed at me across Beachard and Johnny Clay. Sweet Fern couldn’t stand for people to fidget, most particularly me, her own sister. She said it wasn’t something that ladies did, even though she knew I wasn’t one bit interested in being a lady. Still, I decided it wasn’t a good idea to talk back while I was on the path to salvation, so I sat on my hands to keep from picking at my nails and my dress. Johnny Clay kept poking me in the leg, trying to get me to thumb wrestle, but I stared straight ahead and waited for the altar call. Reverend Broomfield, the Baptist preacher, said he wanted only the backsliders—those who had been saved already and then lost their way. One by one, they went up to the altar and rededicated their lives to Jesus, and then everyone sang and Mrs. Broomfield announced the serving of the potluck supper.

  On the second day, Reverend Broomfield said he wanted all the feuding neighbors to come forward so that he could talk to them about forgiveness and put them on speaking terms again, and afterward we all sang and Mrs. Broomfield announced the supper.

  On the third day, Reverend Broomfield and Reverend Nix, who was the preacher at our church, asked for all the sinners who wanted to be saved. I sat straight up and paid attention. Reverend Broomfield promised salvation to anyone who needed it, and all you had to do was come up to the altar and kneel down and say that you loved and accepted Jesus and would live your life for him now and forever. I wondered what that meant exactly, if I could live my life for Jesus and still be a singer at the Grand Ole Opry, with an outfit made of satin and rhinestones and a pair of high-heeled boots. To sing at the Grand Ole Opry and wear an outfit made of rhinestones was my life’s dream.

  One by one, I watched the other sinners take their places at the altar. I did not want to go to hell. But I did not want to give up my dreams either. I sat there, my toes pressed into the sawdust shavings, my legs tensed up, my hands gripping the edge of the bench. Even Jesus must like the Opry, I told myself, and I stood up.

  No one in the congregation was supposed to look at you—they were just supposed to sit quietly and close their eyes or stare at the ground—but when I got up to answer the call, Johnny Clay grabbed the back of my dress and tried to pull me back into my seat. I kicked him as hard as I could and marched right up to the altar with all the other sinners and got down on my knees and closed my eyes and thought about how much I loved Jesus.

  To my left, Swill Tenor, one of the meanest and crookedest men in the valley, suddenly let out a shout and jumped to his feet and began jerking in the Spirit. His eyes were closed and his body was twitching like he was being pinched and pulled all over. Not to be outdone, Root Caldwell, who was so mean that he fought roosters on the weekends, let out a shout and started dancing all around, up and down the aisles. To my right, Mrs. Garland Welch swayed and quivered and spoke in tongues. I just sat there on my knees, watching like a person struck dumb, like a person without any sense. I didn’t jerk or dance or speak in tongues because the Spirit hadn’t touched me one bit.

  The congregation sang “Just as I Am” and “I Surrender All,” but when I lay in bed that night I felt exactly the same as I always did. The next day, I answered the altar call again and watched as all of my fellow sinners were overcome by the Spirit, speaking in tongues or jerking, running or dancing for the Lord. They fell to the ground and wept and shouted his name, while I sat there on my knees, my hands folded in prayer, and wondered what was wrong with me that I couldn’t be saved. I answered the altar call the day after that and the day after that, but nothing happened, which meant, if my daddy was right, I was still doomed to go straight to hell.

  On the sixth morning, just one day before camp meeting’s end, I stayed in bed while everyone else got ready to go to services.

  “Come on, Velva Jean,” Johnny Clay said from the doorway. “You’re
gonna make us late, goddammit.” He had taken up swearing when he was eleven. He grabbed my foot, but I yanked it back under the sheet. I didn’t want to go because I didn’t have anything left in me to pray with or about. I give up, God, I thought as I lay there, the sheet up over my head. I just give up right now. If you want me to go to hell, that’s fine. I’ll go right to hell and I hope you’re happy.

  But then Mama came in and told me to get out of bed in that tone that meant she wasn’t fooling.

  “I can’t,” I said. I didn’t like to disobey Mama, but I knew I was not getting out from under the sheet.

  The bed sank a little as she sat down. “Why not?” Mama was a good listener. She was shy around most people, but she always wanted to hear what they had to say, and she always asked you things instead of just ordering you to listen to her.

  “Because I’m a sinner that can’t be saved. I’m astray like a lost sheep. Even Swill Tenor got saved, and everyone knows he keeps a still.”

  She didn’t say anything, just sat there quietly. It was hot under the sheet and a little hard to breathe, but I wasn’t about to come out.

  “Daddy says I’m going to hell.”

  Mama coughed and then tugged the sheet back, just to under my chin so that she could see my face. Her voice was soft but something in her eyes flickered. “Since when have you known your daddy to be wise about religion?”

  I thought about this. Daddy never went to church if he could help it, and whenever Mama said the Lord’s Prayer, he just moved his lips and pretended to say the words along with her. I wasn’t even sure if he knew them.

  “You, my baby, are not going to hell. You’re a good child, true and pure, and the Lord will call you when it’s time. You can’t bloom the flowers before they’re ready, Velva Jean.” Mama was referring to the time I got into her garden and opened up all the flower buds because I couldn’t wait till spring. “They got to be ready to open on their own.”

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