Velva Jean Learns to Drive, by Jennifer Niven (Penguin: 2009) caught my attention for two reasons.

First of all, it’s a Depression Era coming-of-age novel—the same genre as my first novel, The Wrong Side of the Mountain–so I wanted to see what I could learn from Jennifer about narrating that period of American history.

Second, it highlights the faith struggle of a young woman who grows up near my own hometown of Johnson City, Tennessee. So I wanted to see how it depicts the folk Christianity of that part of Appalachia.

The book is disappointing on the first score. Jennifer Niven is primarily a film scriptwriter, and the novel medium is not her forte. I expected her to write more engaging dialogue and characterizations because of her film background, but that didn’t pan out. She has an engaging plot, but the narrative itself fails to evoke emotional empathy with Velva Jean.

Yet the story reveals a lot about American folk religion. I recommend you read it, just on that account.

For example, Velva Jean and her moonshiner-turned-preacher husband see no contradiction about using vulgar language and doing a lot of things that austere Puritan or Holiness folks would find scandalous—drunkenness, marital infidelity, etc. (It’s easy to see why this book wasn’t issued by a Christian publishing house!) This disconnect between belief and behavior is common to the experience of many American Christians, and I appreciate Velva Jean’s realism in this regard.

Velva Jean’s love/hate relationship with God is also significant. At times, she tries to manipulate God for her own purposes (Who doesn’t?), and she’s perplexed when she doesn’t get the expected results. She comes to believe that God’s behavior will be just as inconsistent as her own, which doesn’t seem to lessen her belief in the reality of God. Confronted with her mother’s sudden death, her father’s footloose ways, a horrific train wreck, and an overbearing husband, she complains to God that life isn’t fair—but she accepts that that’s the way life is. And she believes that that’s the way God is…silent, detached, and (when He does act) inconsistent in His behavior.

Velva Jean is a realistic mirror of the distorted image of God that many of us accept as genuine. Sad to say, her depiction of Christianity hits painfully close to home.