Sunday, July 17, 2011
Historical Fiction: Velva Jean Learns to Fly by Jennifer Niven
Date: August 30, 2011
Acquired: from LibraryThing Early Reviewers
Read: for review (I received my copy of this book in return for a fair and honest review, etc.)
Reading time: three days
Nineteen-year-old Velva Jean Hart has had enough of her life in the North Carolina mountains with her husband, Harley Bright. So, like every good 1940s housewife, she sets off on her own - in the truck she learned to drive in the previous book - for Nashville, where she hopes to start her singing career with the Grand Ole Opry. Once in Tennessee, however, she finds that it's full of people wanting record deals and contracts. Losing hope in finding musical opportunities, Velva Jean turns her dreams from singing to flying and heads off to Texas to join the group that will become the Women's Airforce Service Pilots as the second World War catches hold of the country.
Though this is the sequel to another novel, Velva Jean Learns to Fly can be read without having read the first book. I faced some confusion as to minor characters from Velva Jean's hometown and family but for the most part had no problem jumping in on Velva Jean's story in the middle. The first half of the book is rather unexciting, but it's rarely boring. After all, not all of history was a thrilling adventure. The second half of the novel picks up more as Velva Jean begins her training and eventually goes to Camp Davis in North Carolina. For me, seeing the prejudices and trials that the first female pilots faced there was the most interesting part of the book. I also found it surprising that, after completing months of training and courses, the WASPs were relegated to such tasks as flying fabric targets for soldiers to practice shooting at. With live bullets. That would hit the actual airplanes.
Niven has also done her research on the female pilot programs of World War Two. Her writing contains descriptions of the planes flown during the time and how to control them, as well as details on military life down to what the women were given as uniforms. I did a little research on my own and found that some of the incidents Velva Jean hears of or experiences happened in real life and were recorded by the real WASPs at Camp Davis. Knowing that historical fiction is drawn from actual experiences lends even more credence to authors as they draw readers into the lives of fictional characters such as Velva Jean. The end result: Niven has written a convincing portrait of a not-so-ordinary young woman as she tries to find her place in the world as it's in the midst of near-chaos.