The Talented Ribkins by Ladee Hubbard is a charming read with the serious themes of family relationships, race, self-awareness, and more woven throughout.
The protagonist of this strong debut novel is Johnny Ribkins, a 72-year-old African American man who is in debt to a mobster that doesn’t mess around. Johnny has one week to pay back the money he owes this ruthless man or else. Over the years, Johnny had buried bags of money and jewelry around the state of Florida, so he starts to drive around digging them up. Fearing Ribkins is trying to run away, the mobster sends two henchmen to keep an eye on Johnny.
Johnny is a man who seems to have been coasting through life for years, floating in a cloud of grief over the death of his brother and the loss of days gone by — from his days as a math teacher trying to educate plantation workers to the years he was part of a group called The Justice Committee during the Civil Rights movement.
Pieces of Johnny’s life and family are revealed as he drives from place to place. Hubbard also seamlessly weaves in cultural trends and historical and contemporary discrimination against African Americans. Early on Johnny meets Eloise, a niece that he didn’t know he had who, surprisingly, ends up in his care. More of Johnny’s backstory rolls out as he slowly awakens to the reality of the girl traveling with him. It’s a bit of an odd couple/buddy road trip story.
With each family member he stops to visit, Johnny pieces together more about his brother’s life and in the process gains understanding and self-awareness. His niece meets and learns about her father’s family for the first time and she also gains some valuable lessons along the way. The members of Johnny’s family all have “special powers” that they’ve not always used lawfully or with integrity, but these powers bind them together. The special powers were a bit of a weakness or distraction for me. They didn’t seem to go far enough, be developed enough within the plot, or perhaps I just didn’t read as carefully as I could have to better understand their nuances and metaphorical purposes.
The members of Johnny’s family all have “special powers” that they’ve not always used lawfully or with integrity, but these powers bind them together. The special powers were a bit of a weakness or distraction for me. They didn’t seem to go far enough or be developed enough within the plot. Perhaps I just didn’t read as carefully as I could have to better understand their nuances and metaphorical purposes. I admit I’m not a fan of magical realism.
On the other hand, one of my favorite aspects of this novel is its realism about ageing. I appreciate how Hubbard shows the recalibration that’s sometimes necessary in life as we age. When Johnny first tries to find the location of one of his stashes, he’s unsuccessful. He paces off, digs a hole, finds nothing. Tries again from another angle with no luck. He feels tired and old. Then it hits him:
“He stood up, positioned himself on the bottom step and started walking again, this time channeling the cocky stride of his much younger self. He narrowed his eyes, pursed his lips and tilted his shoulders so that his left side rolled back below his right. He dropped his hips and let his legs slide out in front of him and then sidled across the yard in this manner for a full twenty paces. When he stopped he realized he was almost twice the distance his careful plodding steps took him now. He cocked his head to the left and took ten more winding steps toward the oak tree. He hoisted his shovel and started digging. Yes, sir, he thought. How do you think you got this old? Been around for years and trust, this ain’t nothing. If there’s one thing you do know it’s how to survive this world. Johnny Ribkins always lands on his feet. He lowered his shovel and felt the sudden crack of metal against metal.”
Later he realizes that he’s no longer seen as a threat with his young niece at his side. He’s a gray-haired grampa figure. In his new understanding of himself as a senior and as a caretaker he feels, “old age, the illusion of frailty, a warm sense of anonymity flooding his entire body.”
This story is told with such warmth and tenderness that it was sometimes jarring to remember Johnny is on a life or death mission.
Overall, a highly original story from a gifted storyteller. If you’re looking for a socially conscious yet easy going novel with characters that you want to care about, The Talented Ribkins is for you.
Title: The Talented Ribkins
Author: Ladee Hubbard
Publisher: Melville House
Release date: August 8, 2017
Notes: An INDIE NEXT 2017 pick / Winner of the Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award / Winner of the William Faulkner – William Wisdom Prize
Source: An advance reader copy for TLC Book Reviews
Bottom line: An enjoyable, well-written story that I easily sank into and looked forward to getting back to when I had reading time. A strong debut from an imaginative writer who gracefully incorporates big issues such as race, class, gender, family and more.