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The Talented Ribkins

Review

The Talented Ribkins

THE TALENTED RIBKINS is a joy. It navigates complex and intertwined issues without ever weighing itself down, and manages to do excellent narrative work while also driving a compelling, propulsive plot. The novel follows Johnny Ribkins, a member of an African American family with “talents,” sort of low-grade superpowers. Ladee Hubbard was inspired by W. E. B. Du Bois’ famous essay, “The Talented Tenth,” and modernizes it into a subtly magic contemporary family.

"Part buddy road trip, part family drama, part social commentary and part magical realism, THE TALENTED RIBKINS is in sure hands with Ladee Hubbard, who weaves these parts into a very enjoyable whole."

At 72, Johnny is, you get the sense, too old for all of this. Back in the day --- which doesn’t feel like that long ago to Johnny, until he catches a glimpse of himself in the mirror or runs into a family member who used to be a powerhouse, now confined by age and aches --- the Ribkins used their talents for the Civil Rights movement. They were the Justice Committee, fighting for freedom fighters, staying one step ahead of the civil rights leaders to protect and defend. Yet their talents aren’t exactly super-strength and time-travel --- one can mimic any voice, one can see the layers that compose color, Johnny’s brother could climb any surface without a handhold. So when these powers proved insufficient to maintaining the Justice Committee, the group fell apart, and the Ribkins family struggled in the aftermath. Out of frustration and the ache to take advantage of their powers, to work together, Johnny and his brother used their talents to stage a series of burglaries, each more daring than the last.

Fast forward to the present. The family is fragmented, the movement more of a shadow than Johnny ever wanted it to become, and he is on the run from gangsters who have given him until the end of the week to return the $50,000 he skimmed from them (he had a cause, you’ll discover). This means digging up sums of money, in different forms, from different stashes where he’s buried it. His brother is gone, but Johnny discovers an unexpected ally in the young niece he didn’t know he had, who happens to have some special talents of her own.

Johnny’s own talent? Mapmaking. He can make precise maps of any space you name, whether he’s been there or not. His mapmaking isn’t simple cartography, though he uses it as such sometimes. “You don’t understand what a map is,” he says. “It’s all right, most people don’t. Think of a map as an answer, when really it’s a proposition. Don’t tell you nothing except where you already are.” His talent resonates through ideas of social justice movements, as well as his own fragmented family, and his patchwork odyssey digging up holes of cash from different stages of his life.

Part buddy road trip, part family drama, part social commentary and part magical realism, THE TALENTED RIBKINS is in sure hands with Ladee Hubbard, who weaves these parts into a very enjoyable whole. It’s a fun world in which to be, freckled with moments of clarity and wisdom that make you ache.

Reviewed by Maya Gittelman on August 11, 2017

The Talented Ribkins
by Ladee Hubbard

  • Publication Date: August 8, 2017
  • Genres: Fiction
  • Hardcover: 304 pages
  • Publisher: Melville House
  • ISBN-10: 1612196365
  • ISBN-13: 9781612196367