In a previous job I worked, I had a training session that involved making a map of all my important people – those who contributed to my personal support system, whether that be through financial, developmental or moral guidance. I’m not sure how much it helped me analyse trends in the beer market, but it certainly highlighted the ‘safety net’ I had around me, which is a sure way to conjure confidence out of nowhere.
The Talented Ribkins, by Ladee Hubbard, is about a dynasty of African Americans who have superpowers. This premise is so rad I could probably end my review here, but I need to get the rest of my GREAT BOOK energy out into the world. Johnny Ribkins, our protagonist, is a 72-year-old who can draw maps of anything, whether he’s been there before or not. The narrative follows Johnny as he collects money that he’s buried all around Florida, to repay a debt to his criminal boss, whom he robbed. BUT the beating heart of The Talented Ribkins is Johnny’s delicate mapping out of the web of support available to his preteen niece Eloise, connecting her with her extraordinary family.
We’re introduced to Eloise at the same moment Johnny realises she exists, when he rocks up at his late brother Franklin’s house to unearth the $20,000 he has hidden in the yard. Eloise is living out here in the run-down sticks of Lehigh Acres with her mother, Meredith, who is managing alone following Franklin’s overdose many years before. This shifts Johnny from his course; his road trip is no longer just about locating his stashed funds, it is also about getting to know his niece – and how to navigate skeevy bad guys with a 12-year-old in tow.
Johnny has hidden his money in important places – for the most part, near to the members of the Ribkins family. I won’t give too much away about the other Ribkins, and their weird and wonderful talents, but to give you a hint of the different guidance they offer Eloise, here is an interaction with her aunt Simone:
“You are a Ribkins and you need to know what that means. All these fine people you see here? I want you to know you are just as fine. You got that same greatness in you, that same talent. Understand?”
“Plus you’re a woman, so I’m sorry to say but that makes it doubly important that you know your worth. Because ain’t nobody else going to tell you. Quite frankly, there’s no such thing as a black woman who ever amounted to anything walking around like they got something to apologize for. You’ve got to stand tall, child.”
Johnny’s growing understanding of Eloise – her history, personality and power – simmers alongside the zigzagging route he takes, both on the road and throughout time as he revisits old memories of the Justice Committee. Yes, Johnny was an active member in the civil rights movement, founding a committee to give freedom of movement to black citizens caged in by the threat of hate violence. As we figure out how this links to the events that have kept the Ribkins estranged for the last few decades (wherever Johnny arrives, he’s met with, “That you, Johnny Ribkins?”) Johnny too is trying to figure out what Eloise’s father, Franklin, was going through in his final, unstable years.
The entire cast – the full Ribkins family and their acquaintances – are masterfully flawed. The original Rib-King saw his family’s land stolen by white leaders, and had no qualms in exacting revenge when the opportunity came. Many of the characters similarly feel that as fate has been stacked against them, they are free to take what they can with the talents they have. This is why Johnny hid his fortune from his family in the first place – to keep more for himself – but this doesn’t get in the way of the enduring familial loyalty.
The Talented Ribkins is both stylishly rendered and thick with substance; its vibrant cast and original plot make for a rich reading experience indeed. I really enjoyed following the maps that link people together – and why – and the lasting sentiment of acknowledging and respecting people as they are. Johnny stops looking inward and starts to consider the only superheroes any child really needs; a reliable network of support.
In fact, The Talented Ribkins has been so enjoyed at Turnaround that we have a second glowing review, this time from our Sales Director Ian:
“This debut is my favourite find of the year so far and IMHO presents a singular new author. I LOVED All my Friends are Super Heroes and this reminds me of a richer version of that… very funny and incredibly warm. In a story that spans the civil rights struggle and low-rent mendacity, it is first and foremost about blood ties, family and loving the people around you even if they are not exactly lovable in the conventional sense.”
Yes, that’s correct – the love of Hubbard spans two different departments at Turnaround. I hope that’s the sound of you counting out coins to hit up your local indie!
The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard is published by Melville House on 17th August 2017 (£16.99, h/b, 320pp, 9781612196367)