Velma Still Cooks in Leeway Summary
In Vinita Hampton Wright’s novel Velma Still Cooks in Leeway, the title character, Velma Brendle, operates the only restaurant in the small town of Leeway, Kansas. The regular crowd feels like family, and Velma prays for her customers. People’s stories and struggles weigh on Velma, so she works a few hours a week as janitor at Jerusalem Baptist Church seeking quiet. The past two years have been tough. She feels that God has not come through for her town, but she senses a revelation approaching.
In spring, 1996, Velma’s eighteen-year-old neighbor, Shellye Pines, “turns up” pregnant. Two months before, Shellye had come to Velma teary-eyed and bruised. Len Connor, the youth group’s golden boy, had taken her virginity. When Shellye names the father, “good ol’ boy” Pastor Jack Thomas (in whom Velma has never placed her trust) asks if she is sure. Riled, Shellye maintains that Len was the only man who could have caused the pregnancy and that he forced her. Len denies it.
Hurt that she is not believed, Shellye stops going to church. Her mother, Doris, unsettled since her husband’s desertion years ago, is emotionally absent, adding to Shellye’s stress. Velma often welcomes the girl into her home, offering her the emotional support that Doris does not. Cousin Howard calls in late May. Thirty-eight, fighting cancer, and without a job or insurance, he needs a place to live. He moves in and thanks Velma but seems removed from his feelings about his nearing death. Howard likes Velma’s church friends, however, and notes he is seeing what he has missed.
At a revival meeting, the evangelist preaches that God supplies grace moment by moment. Shellye goes forward at the invitation. She says God is giving her the grace to raise her own baby. When the evangelist asks who will stand with Shellye, more than half the church and Pastor Thomas stand. Shellye then returns to the church, and Grady Lewis spends time with her. Although Velma would not have chosen him, he seems godly, and he proposes in late July. Velma feels disturbed when Grady insists that she wear a cream dress (denoting that she is not a virgin). Shellye, having been raped, believes that she remains a virgin because the rape was against her will. Despite her occasional misgivings about Grady and his rigid standards, Velma delights in catering the wedding reception. She watches Grady’s looks of love and scolds herself for worrying about this pairing.
In October, Len comes to Velma’s front door. Velma reminds him that there are some hurts to clear. Len and Shellye agree to talk at Velma’s home, but Shellye makes Velma promise not to tell the overprotective Grady. Len apologizes for his actions and confesses to his father and Pastor Thomas that he raped Shellye. Grady confronts Pastor Thomas about letting Len off without prosecution, but the pastor is thankful that Len and Shellye have found some resolution.
Shellye’s daughter is born. Doris, though delighted, feels unprepared to be a grandmother. At Christmas, Shellye brings homemade candy to Velma. As Shellye prepares to leave, Velma notices that she has a big, ugly bruise; after she departs, Velma realizes that the bruise is shaped like fingers. At about the same time, Pastor Thomas asks Velma to talk to Shellye about her attitude: Grady is frustrated by Shellye’s not cooperating with his spiritual leadership. Velma responds that Grady may be expecting too much of the tired new mother and then speaks with Shellye—almost asking her if Grady is hurting her but allowing Shellye to gloss things over. The next time Shellye comes to her house, Velma asks about the red mark on her cheek, and Shellye admits that Grady slapped her as a reflex when she overstepped. Pastor Thomas and Grady appear, and Grady apologizes repeatedly. Velma almost asks Thomas if this has happened before, but she lets it ride because the couple are apparently making progress.
When Velma cooks German dishes, Howard devours them and urges her...
(The entire section is 1,176 words.)