Ellen Toby-Potter

"The Average Human"

(Reviewed by Kam Aures AUG 3, 2003)

"Who knew how long the pond had been there? An ancient glacial pothole, perhaps, jettisoned by the northwind-retreating ice. Through cold, quiet centuries, the pond waited with the patience of a natural epicenter, appearing placid, yet all the while churned, like a witch's cauldron, by a wealth of perch and largemouth bass and black water snakes that cleaved its dark surface."

The Average Human by Ellen Toby-Potter

The Libargers and the Mayborns chose opposite banks of the pond to settle and farm. Constantly feuding and mating with each other, the Mayborn family eventually became dominant as they produced boys to carry on the family name whereas the Libargers had girl after girl.

After all was said and done, only one Libarger remained: Jake's Jake. In 1875, Jake's Jake's house started on fire and he managed to escape through a window. In the process, however, he sustained injuries, which resulted in the amputation of one of his legs. Having no one left of the Libarger name to take care of him he had "to be absorbed by the Mayborns- along with his cows and his barn and most of his land."

During the time period that Jake's Jake lived with the Mayborns he was frequently seen working on a sheaf of papers. When not working on them, he had them safely strapped to his hat. Jake's Jake often went and watched the section gang work during the day. He did not communicate with them as the workers were all Italian and he did not speak the language. However, he had taken a liking to one of the young Italian men and one day he presented the Italian man with the papers. Unable to read them and suspicious of Jake's Jake, the man did not show interest until his abusive foreman grabbed the papers and read them. With disgust, the foreman crumbled and threw them on the ground. These actions convinced the young Italian man that the papers were of benefit to him so he picked them up and ran. The foreman came after him and grabbed him, but the young Italian man stabbed him and killed him. Then he took off running to his cousin's house. Jake's Jake passed away that night by the edge of the pond.

Fast forward to generations later and we meet one of the Mayborn daughters, fourteen-year-old June. June is the product of years of relations between close family members and thus possesses some characteristics that are abnormal. Shunned by people her own age because of her family name, June has an affair with the married storeowner Ed Cipriano. The affair lasts until the day when Ed's wife comes home and June sets fire to his house.

June has a preternatural sense of smell. She is constantly sniffing the air or objects and often needs to light a match to clear overpowering aromas from her nostrils. While June's enhanced sense of smell is an interesting concept it is somewhat overdone and takes a little away from the flow of the main storyline. It is relevant to the story in some parts such as when she smells Mrs. Cipriano's return, which causes June to burn down the Cipriano house.

This act of arson results in the death of the Cipriano's boarder, a former cult leader. The resulting funeral draws the capricious Iris Utter and her somber sixteen-year-old daughter Lee back to Loomis. Needing answers to the past they begin a dangerous and disturbing relationship with the Mayborns.

The Average Human is a unique and creative novel about a dysfunctional family and how choices made in the past affect their lives today. The Mayborn family is so far out there that at times the story is unbelievable, but this also makes for a very engaging read. Toby-Potter's style of writing allows the reader to really be able to delve deep into the family dynamics of this abnormal household and to develop a relationship with each character as the character development is done with great skill. Toby-Potter has written an imaginative and entertaining novel that will leave the reader with wanting to read more about the Mayborn family and reading groups with much to discuss.

  • Amazon readers rating: from 13 reviews

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About the Author:

Ellen Toby-PotterEllen Toby-Potter studied creative writing at Binghamton University. Her short stories have appeared in The Hudson Review, Epoch, Cimarron Review, and Seventeen. Her novel Olivia Kidney was winner of the Child Magazine Best Book award and was a Best Book of the Year selection for 8-12 year-olds by Parenting Magazine.

A native New Yorker, she now resides in rural upstate New York.

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