The Rib King

Written by Ladee Hubbard
Review by Pamela Schoenewaldt

In Ladee Hubbard’s debut novel, The Talented Ribkins, bizarre superpowers juiced the hero’s struggle against race and mobsters. Now in The Rib King, Hubbard creates a rich stew of mob violence, Upstairs/Downstairs dynamics, rampant capitalism, land theft in Florida swamps, labor strikes, a miraculous beauty cream, and vengeance via rib sauce that packs a killer punch.

Early in the 1900s, young August Sitwell escapes the brutal destruction of his community deep in the Florida swampland. On the run, he re-appears years later as groundskeeper, butler, and fixer for the Barclays, a genteel white Southern family with sinking fortunes. August offers a stupendous rib sauce recipe to investors who make a fortune with a brand featuring a grinning caricature of August, never grasping how August will subvert their marketing scheme for his own ends.

The second part of the novel features Jennie, another former Barclay employee. Years after the family’s horrific demise, she’s seeking investors for a revolutionary skin cream developed in her beauty parlor. Her efforts are complicated by a labor strike, mob violence, and the crossfire between August’s co-conspirators and those trying to bring him down. Jennie’s choice to escape “the system” is a satisfying subplot.

The novel moves from August’s to Jennie’s story mid-way, so readers never see August’s shift from loyal butler to stealthy agent of revenge. Jennie becomes the amateur sleuth, unraveling the multiple conspiracies which threaten the success of her beauty cream. Complex plot lines make the last half of the book less emotionally involving.

Still, in its bizarre complexity, The Rib King vividly illustrates how capitalism and racism reach from the Florida swamps to national media campaigns that exploit Black entrepreneurs. Readers will marvel at the energy and creativity of those who resist oppression and relentlessly reclaim what is rightfully theirs.