By Leslie Lindsay
Bold, original frame story of a class, race, revenge, set in 1914 at a white home with black servants, THE RIB KING is truly a unique read not quite like any other.
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I discovered THE RIB KING (Amistad, January 2021) by Ladee Hubbard in a recent issue of RealSimple and was immediately intrigued with the concept of marketing: a rib sauce developed by a black cook serving in a white home. The Barclay family has fallen on hard times. When a proprietor suggests selling Ms. Mamie’s delicious meat sauce, the cash-strapped Mr. Barclay agrees. But he takes credit–mostly–in the form of finances, but he puts the face of the black groundskeeper-cum-butler on the bottle. Here, there’s already a travesty.
But then, when they are on promotional tours to sell the sauce, Mr. Sitwell, the man whose face appears on the label, becomes a bit unhinged, suggesting that he is seeking unconventional ways for revenge.
THE RIB KING reminds me of an episode of DOWNTON ABBEY meets UPSTAIRS, DOWNSTAIRS along with a more old-fashioned tale of racism along the lines of BRER RABBIT. It one sense, THE RIB KING is a careful and thoughtful examination of race, class, inequality, survival, enterprising efforts, but also, about America’s fascination with Black iconography, servants in literature. Structurally, Hubbard utilizes the concept of a frame story, that is, she interweaves a story within a story (different than a subplot), in which Mr. Sitwell is piecing together his family history, including when his ancestors were enslaved, which mirrors the forward story.
“Ladee Hubbard’s voice is a welcome original.”
THE RIB KING is brimming with memorable characters; I found them both wry and intelligent while probing at what lies underneath the surface (especially Jennie). That’s what THE RIB KING might truly be about: that appearances aren’t always what they seem.
Told in an elegant, original voice, with a deep sense of metaphor, THE RIB KING is a truly unique read about class, race, survival, and appearances.
Please join me in welcoming the lovely and talented Ladee Hubbard to the author interview series.
Ladee, thank you so much for joining us! I understand THE RIB KING is a prequel to the THE TALENTED RIBKINS, your first book, which I admit I have not read. Can you tell us—first, are they intended to be read in order, or stand-alone, and also, what haunted you into writing?
They are definitely stand-alone books and can be read in any order. While there is some overlap with characters, making THE RIB KING technically a prequel, the books have very different tones, subjects and themes. THE TALENTED MR. RIBKINS is about an African American family in contemporary Florida, who view their ancestor, The Rib King, as the family patriarch. He is idealized by his descendants even though they know very little about his actual life and the only image they have ever seen of him is an illustration that appears on the label of a sauce can. In 2014, while I was still working on THE TALENTED MR. RIBKINS, I began thinking about who The Rib King might have been as an actual person, his real life and experiences.
As for what ‘haunted me into writing’ his story, my ideas that about this character and his story were informed by things going on in the United States at the time I wrote it. Specifically: the beginnings of a renewed national conversation about racial violence, in particular, the vulnerability of children to racial violence.
When the novel begins the title character is preoccupied with ensuring the safety of three African American children who work with him in the house. That is his motive for the various actions he takes in the book, which ultimately lead to him becoming The Rib King.
In that sense, it is a historical novel that was haunted by the present.
Although THE RIB KING takes place in 1914, it is so timely and topical. People are still taking credit for someone else’s invention. We still see a divide between class and race. Rich and poor, enterprising and opportunistic individuals of all walks still exist. It’s not always black and white, either. Can you talk about that, please?
Many of the book’s themes evolved out of my interest in the cultural impact of minstrelsy, an enormously popular form of entertainment at the turn of the last century. Because the impact is so enduring, many of the conflicts the book’s characters face are still with us today. Considering the persistent appeal and implications of minstrel stereotypes became another way for me to explore links between the past and the present in the novel.
A related theme of the novel is the ongoing struggle of Black people to be recognized as producers of culture in a society where, historically, Black people were initially regarded as commodities themselves.
One of the big themes in THE RIB KING is American’s fascination with marketing and also Black iconography in our products, particularly food products. That’s starting to change, and I’m a bit shocked it has taken this long. The Native American woman on Land-O-Lakes butter has gone through numerous transformations over the decades, and now, she’s gone completely. Uncle Ben, as in the rice, he’s changed a bit, too. And there’s Aunt Jemima, Mrs. Butterworth, the chef on the Cream of Wheat box…Caucasian individuals appear on products, too. The Colonel on Kentucky Fried Chicken, the Quaker on oatmeal. Do we really need people on food boxes? Does it matter?
At the turn of the last century, many commodities were marketed as modern conveniences, things that made life easier by doing the work for you. When Black people appeared in ads for these products, they were often used to evoke a nostalgia for slavery– it [suggested the] idea that Black people themselves were also things that were expected to happily do the work for consumers. I was interested in the meanings attributed to popular icons such as Aunt Jemima and Rastus, the Cream of Wheat Man at the time they were created as well as what the durability of those icons, their persistent appeal, says about society today.
With respect to representation, I think that for minority or under-represented communities the stakes are higher because for a long time a handful of stereotypes were the only images of Black people that appeared in popular media. In specific contrast, no one would have confused Colonel Sanders as somehow embodying all white men because they were always presented with so many different representations of that identity.
Let’s shift over to Jennie. How I loved her! She’s so bad-ass. She rebuffs Mr. Sitwell, runs her own beauty shop, but she’s resourceful and doesn’t put up with anything. Plus, she’s raising a strong, intelligent, daughter and I love that about her. But Jennie doesn’t come without a tragic backstory. Can you give us a little insight into her character? What—or who—inspired her?
When the book begins Jennie is a single mother and former stage performer who is working as a maid in the house with Mr. Sitwell. By the end of the book she owns her own beauty salon and is also an inventor. Both she and Mr. Sitwell had very difficult, traumatic experiences in their childhoods but Jennie forms a strong contrast to Mr. Sitwell, in part because she refuses to let her past define her. Like Mr. Sitwell she has had to construct a new identity in order to survive but she is not hiding from herself. She is a performer. She knows who she is, understand what has been through and is determined to keep going and do what she has to do to survive, despite the pain of her past.
What I think I love about Jennie is how she’s working so hard to give her daughter a better future, a more sturdy foundation. Would you say that’s how you saw her, too?
Definitely. I think that her relationship to her daughter is a big source of strength and her will to keep going, no matter the chaos of the world around her. Jennie can’t give up because that would mean giving up on her daughter too and she understands that her daughter needs her. Her love for her daughter is a big part of what gives her the strength to keep imagining a future in which her child can be happy and fulfilled.
Ladee, thank you for this.
I’m glad you enjoyed the book!
Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Join me on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook #bookstagrammer.
For more information, to connect with Ladee Hubbard via social media, or to purchase a copy of THE RIB KING, visit:
WHAT TO READ NEXT:
You may like this Washington Post review of THE RIB KING
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Ladee Hubbard is the author of The Talented Ribkins which received the 2018 Ernest J. Gaines Award for Literary Excellence and the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for Debut Fiction. Her writing has appeared in Guernica, The Times Literary Supplement, Copper Nickel and Callaloo. She is a recipient of a 2016 Rona Jaffe Foundation Writers’ Award and has also received fellowships from the MacDowell Colony, Art Omi, the Sacatar Foundation, the Sustainable Arts Foundation, Hedgebrook, and the Virginia Center for the Creative Arts. Born in Massachusetts and raised in the U.S. Virgin Islands and Florida, she currently lives in New Orleans with her husband and three children.
ABOUT YOUR HOST:
Leslie Lindsay is the creator and host of the award-winning author interview series,“Always with a Book.” Since 2013, Leslie, named “one of the most influential book reviewers” by Jane Friedman, ranks in the top 1% of all GoodReads reviewers and has conducted over 700 warm, inquisitive conversations with authors as wide-ranging as Robert Kolker and Mary Kubica to Helen Phillips and Mary Beth Keane, making her website a go-to for book lovers world-wide. Her writing & photography have appeared in various print journals and online. She is the award-winning author of SPEAKING OF APRAXIA: A Parents’ Guide to Childhood Apraxia of Speech. A former psychiatric R.N. at the Mayo Clinic, Leslie’s memoir, MODEL HOME: Motherhood, Madness, & Memory, is currently on submission with Catalyst Literary Management. Leslie resides in the Chicago area with her family.
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[Cover and author image courtesy of Amistad and used with permission. Artistic image of book cover designed and photographed by me, Leslie Lindsay. Join me on Instagram for more like this @leslielindsay1 #alwayswithabook #bookstagrammer]