Cousin To Human

This 1960 book by Jane Mayhall is astounding for quality of writing and being completely forgotten. Rescued from oblivion by Tillie Olsen’s Silences, I scored a copy through the Link + system from the Fresno State library. Lacy Cole is a fifteen year old girl bopping about Louisville, KY, riding bikes with her pal Valeda, precociously learning piano by having watched her brother William through his years of lessons (there is no money for her lessons). Turns out, she’s a prodigy, a whiz at sight-reading, and can’t stand playing the Souza march without improvising and throwing in her own bits during the graduation ceremony. Her mother, Cleanth, was raised on a farm in eastern Kentucky and scrapes together the meager finances brought in by her foolish husband Norman, saving up to buy a dress for Lacy’s amateur talent show performance (this gets stolen by hubby and spent on a ridiculous sailing ship model), saving up to put William through pharmacy school, saving up to get Lacy to music school in the summer in Boston. Hubby spends all their money on a new car at Christmas, and after taking the family out for a ride, Cleanth demands that he take it back.
Valeda starts to run wild, drinking, hanging out with boys, and Lacy defends her honor from Mildred’s gossipy mouth by fighting her. Later, Valeda reveals that she and Mildred are in love. Lacy is smitten with her music teacher, Mr. Jackson, who pulls the usual stunt of “oh let’s go for a ride” but somehow pulls back after a sloppily applied kiss, goes no further. Out of guilt, he connects Lacy to the wealthy Mrs. Crocker, who has a party to introduce all the folks who will be in Boston for the summer. Here she meets Madame Zuleika, the center of attention, yet kind-hearted singer, and Dr. Sprichett, a fat, disheveled “genius” whose pawing of her hand reminds Lacy of the pawing of her hand at the talent show door.
Cleanth suffers an attack and is taken to the hospital, demanding that no one call Lacy at the Crocker party. Lacy arrives home to chaos, her mother is hospitalized for weeks, and then home to die. Her mother recognizes Lacy’s strength, a model of herself, millions of times stronger than brother William. Realizing death is near, Cleanth puts $5 in Lacy’s hand, the last of the money she’s scraped together. A neighbor comes to the door to tell Lacy that Valeda was killed in a car crash. Later, Cleanth dies. William’s wife Tessie immediately begins stripping the place clean, looking for things to take, including all of Cleanth’s jewelry. A terrible scene between William and Lacy where he tells her that it’s her fault Cleanth died, she wouldn’t spend the money on a doctor because she was saving it up for Lacy. In the end, she’s on a bus headed to Boston, cut off from every bit of her old life.