Tuesday, August 11, 2009

Three degrees from Lincoln

When I started this blog, it was to honor the life and the legacy of Abraham Lincoln in celebration of the bicentennial of his birth. That mission hasn’t changed. You may wonder, therefore, why I would use Lincoln Buff 2 as a forum to tell you about a novel that has nothing to do with the 16th president.

Bear with me while I explain. Then, after I do, if you understand, please read about this marvelous book – and the author who so handily crafted the story.

The way I see it, we can make a connection between this novel and Lincoln. They’re just three degrees apart:
  • One degree from Abraham Lincoln is his biographer, Carl Sandburg
  • Two degrees away is Carl Sandburg biographer, Penelope Niven
  • Three degrees away is Jennifer Niven, Penelope’s daughter and author of Velva Jean Learns to Drive

I’d like to use this interconnectedness to justify this blog post, but first let me tell you why.

Penny’s talk
Two decades ago, I was the front-end manager of a supermarket in Galesburg (Ill.). I’d left college midstream nearly twenty years earlier to get married and raise a family. One evening, sometime around 1990 or so, Penelope Niven was speaking at Carl Sandburg College on the most obvious of subjects, her upcoming Sandburg biography.

If you ever get a chance to meet Penny Niven, you’ll find her, as I did, to be one of the most charming and upbeat people you’ve ever met. You will find it hard to leave the encounter without catching the enthusiasm she radiates.

As I was at a turning point in my life, longing to return to school and share what I learned, either as a teacher or a writer, a number of things about Penny’s speech struck a chord with me that night. The strongest, though, were two comments that originated with Jennifer.

The first was the answer a pre-teen Jennifer gave when asked to share with her class her parents’ occupations. Jennifer’s response went something like this, “My father is a teacher and my mother is obsessed with a dead guy.”

The second happened a few years later. As Penny was lamenting the time it was taking to do her 800-word biography, the writer quipped, “I’ll be fifty before I get this book done!”

Her wise daughter responded, “Mother, you’ll be fifty anyway.”

So why does this matter? Well, maybe because after that talk, I finished college, turned fifty, and am now obsessed with the dead guy with whom Penny’s dead guy was obsessed. Jennifer’s words and her mother’s wisdom in passing them on have motivated me to pursue my dreams. But, I’ll likely be 60 before I get my book done!

The least I can do for Jennifer, though, is tell you about her book. It’s certainly not hard to say good things about Velva Jean.

Jennifer learns to read – and write
Jennifer Niven is a striking young lady – very photogenic. Yet, in spite of all the photos I’ve seen of her, one of my favorites is of her as a little girl with her nose between the pages of a great big book.

I imagine it taken was about the same time Jennifer crafted her own first book. Twelve years ago, I was there when she shared the volume with a Hendersonville, N.C. audience as she and her mother spoke about their careers. The young author’s early effort didn’t look much different than those many of our children designed in their early school days, but my bet is that Jennifer knew who she was as soon as she created it. She was a writer.

I first encountered Jennifer’s work in her non-fiction books about Arctic exhibitions, The Ice Master and Ada Blackjack. Jennifer’s research and storytelling skills are phenomenal. She brought those long gone explorers to life. Both books held me spellbound as I waited on pins and needles to see how things turned out.

Velva Jean is born again
Yet, even before these books, young Jennifer had reached a pinnacle few writers ever do. She was awarded an Emmy for her screenplay of a film titled Velva Jean Learns to Drive, which she wrote in 1995 while still a student at the American Film Institute.

Velva Jean was born on the pages of a short story Penny wrote, resurrected on screen by Jennifer and is born again between the covers of this new book.

What a glorious rebirth it is! Not only is the story reborn but, in the book, the character is reborn through a religious conversion.

But let’s not get ahead of ourselves. If I were to describe the book in one sentence, I’d say this: Velva Jean Learns to Drive is a coming-of-age story about a girl in the 1930s and 40s from the Appalachian hills who dreams of becoming a singer in Nashville.

It’s that and much, much more.

The characters in Jennifer’s book really are so believable you think you’ve known them all your life. They’re people you can love, hate and feel real pity for. She draws you into the story so well that you truly can sense a panther on your heels, feel the exhilaration of a wild ride down the mountain in a bright yellow pickup truck, smell the putrid fumes of a train wreck.

Not your mama’s mountain tale
Some might argue that certain aspects of this book could be stereotypical – a mountain family with an ailing mom, a wandering dad, a big sis who married young and had a brood of kids, a traveling preacher man, a family-owned store and people who’ve never left their small town.

Yet, that’s what makes this book worth reading and significant historically. The scenes Jennifer paints really are the past as it was in the rural south – and not so different from the rest of the country at the same time. We can read her book and climb back into the limbs of our own family trees. In fact, some of the stories spring from the branches of her own.

From that angle, we can see much more. In her characters, we see ourselves and those around us. Families in her book are dysfunctional. Whose aren’t? People in her book have hopes and dreams for themselves or others. They love intensely and hate immensely. They propel each other and hold each other back. They want the best for their community and they want to fight progress. Some have all they’ll ever need or want, while others spend each day dreaming dreams they fear will never come true.

The appeal of Velva Jean is not that Jennifer Niven has blazed a new trail through those mountains of old. It’s that she’s taken the personalities we all know, the experiences we’ve all lived and she’s brought them to life anew. In Velva Jean Learns to Drive, we all see a little of ourselves and our pasts. As Jennifer tells Velva Jean’s tale, our stories, too, are born again.

She’s not done yet

There are few authors who grab me and hole me spellbound, so strongly that I can’t wait for their next book. Penny does, Richard Bach does (I want to soar like Jonathan. What’s wrong with that?) and Jennifer does.

Fortunately, I don’t have to wait long for her next one. The Aqua-Net Diaries, Big Hair, Big Dreams, Small Town, the memoir of her high school days in Richmond (Ind.) is due out soon. The title alone should give you a hint why she could write about Velva Jean so well. Now, Jennifer’s hard at work on her fifth volume.

Who knows? At this rate, Jennifer might just catch up with my friend, Lincoln scholar Harold Holzer, who’s pounding out his 34th book, And, I’m sure I’ll love every one of her books as much as I do his.

Another Lincoln link
Oh, and that whole Lincoln connection thing? There are two more. Velva Jean’s dad and brother shared the same first name – Lincoln. So, if you decide to do as I did and drop all things Lincoln to read this book, it’s okay. Really, it is.

© Copyright 2009 Ann Tracy Mueller. All rights reserved.

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