At the end of Velva Jean Learns to Fly, Velva Jean Hart, a newly-minted pilot, takes off from her training camp, bound for England. The beginning of Becoming Clementine finds her still in mid-air over the Atlantic Ocean. Author Niven, with the born storyteller’s knack for picking up where she’s left off, brings us immediately on board. We begin:
They said the B-17 had mythical powers, that it was magic because it could defend itself, even with the pilot knocked cold and no one at the wheel, and that it could return home even if it was blown apart. It was the fiercest fighter of the war, the Flying Fortress, a daylight precision bomber that flew smooth for being so big and heavy – as smooth as Three Gum River, back home in North Carolina, on a sunny cloudless day . . .[ellipsis mine]. . . I was dressed in my Santiago Blues, the official uniform of the WASP, or Women Airforce Service Pilots with a smart little hat and a fitted navy skirt designed by Bergdorf Goodman in New York, and I had a .45 pistol strapped to my hip.
We’re still on page 1, mind you … in fact, we’re only in the second paragraph. But we have established time, place, peril, and voice. We know our narrator is a brave, strong woman, young because she is deferential enough to refer to the “they” who describe the B-17 even though she is the one flying it, and strong because the plane is “fierce” and “big and heavy.” She is prone to a poetic turn of phrase, credulous of myth, not above appreciating a flattering cap but still, packing heat. While pinpointing the place in history, Niven has also foreshadowed danger and given way to a sneeze of nostalgia for home. If I taught fiction, I would use this book.
Lest the pink cover and the occasional folksy references put you off, give it ten pages – give it five – and you will be under its spell. Niven is not just a masterful storyteller but an engaging writer who can evoke shivers in the damp, dangerous fog of the French countryside. The two predecessors in this series were Velva Jean Learns to Drive and Velva Jean Learns to Fly and in those books the heroine did indeed teach herself to do what she needed to do in order to accomplish what she needed to get done. Here, she “becomes,” although throughout her oeuvre she has always been “becoming” someone – most of her friends have christened her with their own nickname, a demonstration of how multi-faceted she is. You don’t need to have read the earlier books to appreciate this one, but once you have finished it (in one or two sittings), you will want to.
Crash-landing behind enemy lines in Occupied France, Velva Jean “becomes” Clementine Roux in order to help the OSS and the French Resistance. As in the other novels, she is marginalized, belittled, scolded, ignored, condescended to, frightened, courageous, and resourceful. In other words, she is a woman in the war. But more than that, she is a WASP in the war and this novel, among all its other attributes, pays tribute to their largely unrecognized service.
Here is a trailer for the book: