The Talented Ribkins, Ladee Hubbard’s remarkable debut novel, is getting a lot of hype and it deserves it. It’s an original and delightful look at big topics–race, class, and politics to name 3–but it’s also an inventive, comic and very readable look at all the vicissitudes of family, and how strange and wonderful such bonds can be.
Johnny Ripkins comes from a remarkable family, in which each has a superpower. He can draw a map to anywhere, even a place he’s never seen. His brother, Franklin, could scale any wall no matter how high or straight. His cousin can breathe out fireworks, and another cousin can make herself the most winsome, irresistible woman on the planet. In the Civil Rights Era, several of them formed the Justice Committee, in which they managed to protect those protesting for civil rights by creating diversions elsewhere. The idea was to make a way to keep the heroes safe.
Johnny’s niece, Eloise, finds this idea hilarious. Keep the heroes safe? Isn’t it supposed to be the other way round? Eloise is the daughter of Johnny’s half-brother Franklin, and until Johnny shows up at the house where Franklin was living when he died, Johnny had no idea that Eloise even existed. Now the two of them are traveling together, and Eloise is showing her birthright in what might be the strangest superpower of all of them.
After the Justice Committed disbanded, a very disillusioned Johnny and Franklin became thieves. After all, if one of you can draw detailed maps of unseen places, and the other can scale completely vertical walls, you can be pretty sure you won’t get caught. But Franklin went off the rails a bit, and then died. Now Johnny is 72, and for a while has been stealing money from his mafia boss. At the beginning of the book, he’s been given a week to come up with $100,000, and he’s following his own mental map to where he buried treasure from all those heists years ago. He begins at Franklin’s old house, where he meets Franklin’s old girlfriend, and Franklin’s child. Before he knows it, Eloise has joined him on his travels. As he revisits old haunts, he is also revisiting his past–his cousins, uncle, and old friends. Meanwhile, he and Eloise are getting to know each other, and she’s being introduced to all her extended family.
As Johnny travels throughout his own past, he gains new insights and understandings into his family, and finally begins to see why certain things went down the way they did. He also gains new hope. We see people who really wanted to make a difference but were eventually defeated by circumstances, and those who pretended they wanted to make a difference while really just wanting to make money. As things become clearer, Johnny still needs to get that $100,000 together in time.
The Talented Ribkins is an unusual and original tale, well-written, interesting, and enjoyable. I highly recommend it.