Thursday, August 24, 2017
The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard
“He only came back because Melvin said he would kill him if he didn't pay off his debt by the end of the week.” So begins Ladee Hubbard's intriguing and enjoyable picaresque allegory,The Talented Ribkins (Penguin Random House, 2017, 304 pp. $17.41/19.99) Johnny Ribkins digs in the backyard of his brother's house and meets Eloise, his specially talented niece, too. A day or so later, he comes back to visit, and his brother's woman Meredith says, “Take her.”
Johnny Ribkins, an aging black man who's lived an eventful life on the edge, is a member of a talented family, whose life is traced through his search to accumulate the money he owes Melvin, which lies buried in a variety of places around Florida. As the story emerges, Johnny was once the central person in a shadowy organization founded in the civil rights era of the sixties and calling itself the Justice Committee, which served to protect and enable various elements of the freedom struggle of that time. Johnny and Eloise travel to a variety of locations in Florida where he has hidden away money for a future use, which has now arrived, as he owes Melvin $50,000, a seemingly insurmountable sum.
Each member of the Ribkins family possesses some special talent setting them aside and enabling them to stand out. As their lives progress, this talent enables them to succeed or fail in the world of black Florida, where much of life takes place in the hot, dusty, dry places most people visiting never encounter. “Truth was his father had been blessed and burdened with the ability to see in the dark. He had a cousin who spit firecrackers, a niece who could talk to fish, a nephew whose one true joy was picking locks.. And then, of course, his grandfather had had that sense of smell.....” Truly a family with strange and wonderful unexplained talents.
As Johnny Ribkin drives Eloise around to retrieve items he's buried all over Florida, his story emerges. Talented in math, he had gone to college, become a teacher during the civil rights movement and lost his job because he taught migrant plantation workers to understand the plight they were in by drawing a map for them. Drawing maps represents his talent. Each member of the Ribkins (down from the great grandfather's business, The Rib King™ ) has a special quality that makes him or her stand out. As Johnny Ribkin follows his own mental map to recover items of value he has buried in holes all over south Florida, he re-discovers his past and renews himself. Each stop along Johnny's journey to find hidden articles elicits memory which become elements of self-discovery, placing nostalgia into a context of this life.
Johnny's talent, as a Ribkin, was to make maps. Maps to help find the way to safety, to navigate situations, and, ultimately, to draw the map of a life, which he found himself, of course, unable to complete because it was the map of his life. To make a map, a person needs a starting place, a route, and a realized destination. When the ultimate destination is unknown, it's impossible to map the way to it. Thus Johnny's frustration and inability to complete his most important map. His niece, Eloise, catches things. His brother can, spider-like, climb walls. Johnny can map out people's lives. The Ribkins use their talents for good or ill on many sides of the law and politics. Johnny Ribkins' journey with Eloise enables him to return to his roots as well as bring along another generation of talents.
Ladee Hubbard was born in Massachusetts, raised in Florida and the U.S. Virgin Islands and currently lives in New Orleans with her husband and three children. She received a B.A. from Princeton University, a Ph.D. from the University of California-Los Angeles, and an M.F.A. in creative writing from the University of Wisconsin-Madison. She has published short fiction in the Beloit Fiction Journal and Crab Orchard Review among other publications and has received fellowships from the Hambidge Center, the Virginia Center for Creative Arts and the Hurston/Wright Foundation. She is a recipient of a 2016 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award.
Part of the joy of reading Laddee Hubbard's The Talented Ribkins (Penguin Random House, 2017, 304 pp. $17.41/19.99) lies in the journey of self-discovery for both Johnny and Eloise as he re-connects with a past he thought he had lost and introduces his niece to a family she didn't know she had. Hubbard's ability to create environments that mirror fears and lost opportunities while opening new vistas to both characters and readers shows her particular talent. She's a rare stylist, taking enough time to allow her characters to come to terms with their own situations and enabling the reader to find joy and understanding. I eagerly await her next effort. I received the book as an advanced reviewers copy from the publisher through Edelweiss and read it on my Kindle app.
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