The Talented Ribkins Synopsis :
At seventy-two, Johnny Ribkins shouldn’t have such problems: He’s got one week to come up with the money he stole from his mobster boss or it’s curtains for Johnny.
What may or may not be useful to Johnny as he flees is that he comes from an African-American family that has been gifted with super powers that are rather sad, but superpowers nonetheless. For example, Johnny’s father could see colors no one else could see. His brother could scale perfectly flat walls. His cousin belches fire. And Johnny himself can make precise maps of any space you name, whether he’s been there or not.
In the old days, the Ribkins family tried to apply their gifts to the civil rights effort, calling themselves the Justice Committee. But when their, eh, superpowers proved insufficient, the group fell apart. Out of frustration Johnny and his brother used their talents to stage a series of burglaries, each more daring than the last.
Fast forward a couple decades and Johnny’s on a race against the clock to dig up loot he’s stashed all over Florida. His brother is gone, but he has an unexpected sidekick: his brother’s daughter, Eloise, who has a special superpower of her own.
Inspired by W. E. B. Du Bois’s famous essay “The Talented Tenth” and fuelled by Ladee Hubbard’s marvelously original imagination, The Talented Ribkins is a big-hearted debut novel about race, class, politics, and the unique gifts that, while they may cause some problems from time to time, bind a family together.
For sheer reading pleasure Ladee Hubbard’s original and wildly inventive novel is in a class by itself.” —Toni Morrison, Nobel Prize-winning author of The Bluest Eye, Beloved, and Song of Solomon
(Melville House Publishing, 2017)
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I admire the creative ambition of Ladee Hubbard on display in The Talented Ribkins.
Much of what happens in this novel could, on reflection, be interpreted as symbolism. One of the most simple examples, some of the special powers the Ribkins family members possess. I understand them to be nods to those characteristics that have been required to overcome challenges the civil rights movement has faced – making maps (understanding obstacles and finding a way through them), scaling walls (breaking through barriers) and seeing colours no one else could (self-explanatory…), and his niece’s special power, being able to catch anything that’s thrown at her:
The truth was there was something depressing about what she did, something that made him feel sad. Because she was right: she couldn’t catch something unless someone else threw it first. It didn’t really matter what she called it, there was no getting around the implication of violence. The fact that the blows never connected didn’t seem to have much to do with that part.
The darker side of human nature is explored, the propensity for people to use causes for their own personal gain, or even if they did start with altruism have their objectives waylaid or repurposed through compromise.
“Just let it alone.” That part of his life was over. He’d given up trying to figure out how to save the world; it was an attempt that had started to seem like little more than arrogance a long time ago.
In many instances though, the references (if I interpreted them correctly) were so subtle that they’d easily go unnoticed, and at times I think their inclusion, along with the many reflective passages throughout this novel, actually clouded the story of personal growth in the forefront.
Although meandering at times, the road trip and personal journey of Johnny and Eloise, is a great reminder that both the young and the old having something to learn from one another.
While for me Ladee Hubbard’s The Talented Ribkins fell short of realising its full potential, it was certainly a thought provoking read.
BOOK RATING: The Story 3.5 / 5 ; The Writing 3 / 5
Genre: Literature, Drama, Action-Adventure
About the Author, Ladee Hubbard
LADEE HUBBARD is the winner of the 2016 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writer’s Award and the William Faulkner-William Wisdom Creative Writing Competition for the Short Story. She lives in New Orleans, Louisiana. The Talented Ribkins is her first novel.
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* My receiving a copy from the publisher for review purposes did not impact the expression of my honest opinions in the review above.