Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven

  Table of Contents

  Title Page

  Copyright Page




  ~ 1941 ~









  ~ 1942 ~












  ~ 1943 ~















  ~ 1944 ~













  Author’s Note on the WASP



  JENNIFER NIVEN’s first novel, Velva Jean Learns to Drive, was published to wide acclaim and was chosen as an Indie Reader’s Group “Top Ten” Pick. Velva Jean Learns to Fly is her second novel. Niven has also written three nonfiction books. 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. Ada Blackjack was a Book Sense “Top Ten” Pick and has been optioned for the movies and translated into Chinese, French, and Estonian. The Aqua-Net Diaries, a memoir about her high school experiences, was optioned by Warner Bros. as a television series. Niven has conducted numerous writing seminars and addressed audiences around the world. She lives in Los Angeles. For more information, visit or follow her on Facebook.

  Praise for Velva Jean Learns to Fly

  “An endearing portrait of a young woman with a big heart—Velva Jean Learns to Fly illuminates the power of going after a dream and the courage it takes to never let go.”

  —Beth Hoffman, bestselling author of Saving CeeCee Honeycutt

  “Velva Jean’s story delves into the contributions made by amazing women during World War II and tells a compassionate story about adventure, love, and war. This is a wonderful book—very hard to put down.”

  —Ann Howard Creel, author of The Magic of Ordinary Days

  “I devoured Velva Jean Learns to Fly and immediately began spreading the word: This one is not to be missed!”

  —Cassandra King, author of The Same Sweet Girls

  “For any who have ever chased a dream, for any who have ever risked it all, for any who have ever stumbled and risen and brushed the grit from their palms, for any who have ever grieved and mended, fallen in and out of love, wished to fly and then flown, there is Velva Jean, the fearless, wide-eyed, big-hearted heroine of Jennifer Niven’s second novel, a sweeping adventure that takes the reader from the streets of Nashville to the belly of a WWII bomber.”

  —Benjamin Percy, award-winning author of

  The Wilding and Refresh, Refresh

  “In this fun, fast-paced, heartwarming sequel to Velva Jean Learns to Drive, we follow the beloved young heroine from her mountain home to Nashville. But soon after Pearl Harbor is attacked, Velva Jean begins singing a new song—one full of patriotism, courage, and feisty independence. The perfect read for any girl of any age who yearns to soar beyond her dreams.”

  —Susan Gregg Gilmore, author of The Improper Life of

  Bezellia Grove and Looking for Salvation at the Dairy Queen

  “God Bless Southern women, their dreams, energy, and courage. Jennifer Niven and her heroine Velva Jean have those in spades.”

  —Beth Grant, award-winning actress from

  Little Miss Sunshine and No Country for Old Men

  “Who would have thought that a young woman’s adventures in World War II would capture my attention—and keep it? Velva Jean pulled me into her story and wouldn’t let me go, from her comical and sometimes humiliating trip to Nashville, the city of her dreams, to the first time she grabs the throttle of a plane and soars. We see her get her wings and fly through wartime danger, intrigue, suspense, and even sabotage. This gripping, heartwarming action-adventure tale stays with you long after you turn the last page.”

  —James Earl Jones, Tony Award–winning,

  Emmy Award–winning actor

  “Putting this one down is a near impossibility. The descriptions of the work, the prejudice, fear, and bittersweet success of becoming a female pilot seemed so real I felt as if I were sharing every step with Velva Jean.”

  —Nancy E. Turner, award-winning author of These Is My Words

  “From the ballads of the Grand Ole Opry to the magnificent women of Avenger Field, Jennifer Niven spins a tall tale that is utterly heartfelt and rings true.”

  —Sherri L. Smith, author of Flygirl

  Praise for Velva Jean Learns to Drive

  “A touching read, funny and wise, like a crazy blend of Loretta Lynn, Dolly Parton, a less morose Flannery O’Connor, and maybe a shot of Hank Williams . . . Niven makes some memorable moonspun magic in her rich fiction debut.”

  —Publishers Weekly (starred review)

  “In this story Jennifer Niven creates a world long gone, a mountain past where people suffer failure, loss, and betrayal, as well as the strength and joy of connection and deep love. Velva Jean Learns to Drive takes us far into this soaring, emotional country, the place where our best music comes from.”

  —Robert Morgan, author of Gap Creek

  “A fluid storyteller.”

  —Wall Street Journal

  “Velva Jean learns to . . . not only drive, but to soar. This beautifully written coming-of-age story captivated me, and I recommend it to anyone who has ever longed to ‘live out there.’ ”

  —Ann B. Ross, author of the bestselling Miss Julia novels




  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, Auckland 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, September 2011

  Copyright © Jennifer Niven, 2011

  All rights reserved

  Grateful acknowledgment is made for permission to reprint an excerpt from “I’ll Fly Away
” by Albert E. Brumley. Copyright © 1932 in “Wonderful Message” by Hartford Music Co. Renewed 1960 by Albert E. Brumley & Sons/SESAC (admin by ClearBox Rights). All rights reserved. Used by permission.



  Niven, Jennifer.

  Velva Jean learns to fly / Jennifer Niven.

  p. cm.

  ISBN : 978-1-101-54375-7

  Southern—Fiction. 2. Nashville (Tenn.)—Fiction. 3. Airplanes—Piloting—Fiction.

  4. Women air pilots—Fiction. I. Title.

  PS3614.I94V46 2011

  813’.6—dc22 2011015887


  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 John Ware,

  who helped give Velva Jean her wings,

  and who always encourages me to fly

  And for Mom, as ever

  And in memory of Mabel Rawlinson,

  Betty Taylor Wood, and the thirty-six

  other WASP who lost their lives

  in the line of duty

  I was happiest in the sky . . .

  Think of me there and remember me.

  —Cornelia Fort, January 1942


  People often ask if I ever get lonely while writing a book, to which I reply, “Even when I am sitting alone at my desk, I’m surrounded by people who are a part of the journey.” My dynamite agent and friend John Ware has been on that journey from the start, as wise as the Wood Carver, as funny as Johnny Clay, as encouraging and supportive as Daddy Hoyt. As usual, I could not have done this without him. My brilliant editor, Carolyn Carlson, has my eternal gratitude for believing in Velva Jean, not once, but twice now, and for helping to shape and hone and strengthen her story with her magical and insightful editorial notes. Deepest thanks to her and to all the wonderful folks at Plume—Clare Ferraro, Kathryn Court, John Fagan, Liz Keenan, Amanda Brower, Katie Hurley, Milena Brown, Eve Kirch, and the terrific sales team—who have been a part of this story. And thank you to Melissa Jacoby for once again creating the perfect cover.

  Enormous thanks and gratitude to my first readers: Penelope Niven, Scott Boyer, and Valerie Frey. Their thoughts and feedback were invaluable. Extra special thanks, as always, to my dear mama, Penelope Niven, who is not only a wonderful editor but my very best friend in the world. She was the person—along with my father, Jack F. McJunkin—who first taught me to fly and who has, ever since that first lesson, encouraged me to keep flying. Thanks to my sacred circle for love, laughter, silliness, and support: Joe Kraemer, Lisa Brucker, Angelo Surmelis, Christos Sourmelis, Ed Baran, Dan and Magda Dillon (and Daniel too), and last, but in no way least, Louis Kapeleris, who may have arrived late in the process, but who has been such a part of it just the same, filling my days with love and sunshine and dreams come true (as well as sage feedback and a rock star author photo), and who has given me the happiest writing space I’ve ever known. And thanks to my wonderful family and friends: all my McJunkin and Niven kin, Lynn Duval Clark, Judy Kessler, Beth Shea, Binnings Bent, Vanessa Vaughn, Tate Whitney Parker, Fred Tyler, John Hreno, Brian Stone, Tabitha Marsden, Jamal Farley, Jack Meggers (for teaching me that rattlesnakes like ragtime), Ian Fraser, Jan Ricci, Shawn Kowaleski, and Lynda Boyer, for making me feel so welcome at Ruth’s Oasis, where so much good writing was done.

  Thanks again to my mom, who is not only a brilliant writer of books but a brilliant writer of songs. Velva Jean and Butch Dawkins are both indebted to her skills. Heartfelt thanks to Curtis Duncan (and his family), a boy I once loved who died too soon, for writing me a song called “You Make Me Happy” before he went away.

  As always, I could not have written this book without the devoted and energetic help of literary kitties Satchmo (who diligently protected the house so no stray cats could get in and disturb me while I was writing), Rumi (who purred at and around me constantly, stopping only to attack each page as it was printed), and Lulu (who insisted on sitting on my lap while I wrote and oftentimes on the computer itself).

  I’m grateful to the National WASP World War II Museum in Sweetwater, Texas; Nancy Parrish and WASP on the Web (; Texas Woman’s University; the Palm Springs Air Museum (where I toured a B-17!); the Marietta Aeronautical Museum and Education Center; the Kennesaw State University Oral History Project; Marion Stegeman Hodgson and Edward Hodgson for romantic inspiration (anyone craving a great adventure/love story should read Marion’s book Winning My Wings); and to Bernice “Bee” Haydu and Jean T. McCreery and all the other brave and daring members of the Women Airforce Service Pilots. How I wish I could have been one of you.

  Finally, I couldn’t have written the book without Carole Lombard, Supernatural, the Jonas Brothers, Bootcamp LA, Rescue Me, the Silver Lake Reservoir, Robeks, 90210, the ArcLight, Mind-Body Fitness, Mark Wahlberg, Griffith Park, Vitaminwater, The Bachelorette, Liberation Yoga, Palermo Ristorante Italiano, the BigFoot Lodge, and Ryan Bingham. I created Butch Dawkins before I knew who Ryan Bingham was, but it’s like he walked off the page—right down to that face, that hair, the tattoos, those songs, and the whiskey-and-cigarettes voice. Mercy.

  Last of all, thanks to the loved ones who are no longer here but who live on in my heart and, in part, on these pages: my grandmothers Eleanor Niven and Cleo McJunkin (who together make Granny); my grandfathers Olin Niven (Daddy Hoyt) and Jack McJunkin Sr. (Johnny Clay); Charlie Kelly; Charles McGee; Phil Clark; Mary Martin; Mary Ellen Boyer; literary kitties George and Percy; and, most of all, my father.

  ~ 1941 ~

  When the shadows of this life have gone,

  I’ll fly away.

  Like a bird from these prison walls, I’ll fly,

  I’ll fly away.

  —“I’ll Fly Away”


  Ever since I was a little girl, I knew that singing at the Grand Ole Opry was my life’s dream. Now I was driving myself from Alluvial, North Carolina, to Nashville, Tennessee, in my old yellow truck and I was planning to sing the whole way. I began with “The Unclouded Day” and from there ran through my favorite hymns before I started in on the mountain folk songs I was raised on and, finally, songs I’d written myself.

  Yellow truck coming,

  bringing me home again.

  Yellow truck going,

  I’m on my way . . .

  I’d decided that when I got to Nashville I was going to drive straight to the Opry before I went anywhere else, before I even found a room to rent or a place to work. I wanted to touch the building where Roy Acuff and the Smoky Mountain Boys had been discovered, and where I knew I would sing someday. I might even kiss the building, depending on how dirty it was.

  On my way to tomorrow

  and dreams come true,

  leaving my yesterday . . .<
br />
  The day was bright and blue, and the sun beamed down on the old yellow truck and on my arm hanging out the window. I’d kicked my shoes off long ago. I wanted to feel the pedals under my feet.

  I’m driving this truck to Nashville,

  home of dreams come true . . .

  I was writing a new song as I drove with one eye on the road, the other on the rearview mirror. The mountains—my mountains, the ones where I was born, where I was raised, the one named for my mama’s people, the one where I’d lived with Harley Bright after we got married, the ones I’d just up and left hours before—were slipping away.

  where I’ll wear a suit of rhinestones

  and play a guitar made of jewels . . .

  Just east of Sylva, I turned off the Scenic and onto Route 23, and I saw the first sign for the Balsam Mountain Springs Hotel a mile or so later. I tried not to remember my honeymoon, back when I was sixteen and had never been anywhere and had to rely on Harley Bright to take me places. I tried not to think about an orchestra under the moonlight, about the night Harley made me a woman, and the morning after when I looked at myself in the mirror and decided I really didn’t look any different after all.

  I tried not to think about Harley coming home tonight from the Little White Church, expecting his supper, expecting me. I tried not to picture him walking in the door and not finding me—that first moment when he realized I was gone really and truly, and not just to my sister’s or to Granny’s. I tried not to think about what might happen if he found out where I was and decided to come looking for me.

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