Frontlist | ‘The Rib King’: A meaty novel about ambition, race and revengeFrontlist | ‘The Rib King’: A meaty novel about ambition, race and revenge
on Jan 28, 2021
Ladee Hubbard’s sophomore novel, The Rib King, is a fascinating story about the intersection of ambition, race, and revenge. The book opens in 1914 in a mythic Northern city reminiscent of Chicago and follows the fortunes of the Black servants for the white Barclay family. The first section is narrated by Mr. Sitwell, a longtime groundskeeper and newly minted butler for the Barclays who later becomes the face of a popular meat sauce. Sitwell’s decision to settle scores after reading a fictional account of the events that orphaned him and jettisoned him from his beloved rural Florida community at just 12 years old sets the rest of the book’s events into motion.
The Rib King upends the racial calculus that amplifies the stories of the privileged few, offering rich, lovingly rendered portraits of working-class Black people. Hubbard’s work underscores the legendary Toni Morrison’s words in the New Yorker: “You are not the work you do; you are the person you are.”
Hubbard’s novel is a powerful meditation on the way that Black women’s hopes and fortunes were (and still are) constrained by racism and misogyny. Mamie Price, the Barclays’ cook, is a woman whose ingenuity and artistry far surpass the circumscribed opportunities available to her. Jennie Williams, another domestic worker for the Barclays, eventually discards a life marked by abuse and remakes herself into an inventor and entrepreneur, outmaneuvering gangsters, activists, and white businessmen alike.
While The Rib King is set in the early 20th century, the questions it raises are deeply resonant today. Among them: What if African Americans responded to the profound violence leveled against them with vengeance instead of nonviolence? Sitwell awakens from a kind of servile slumber and heeds a call to action: “I have always known I owe my people something. For a long time, I thought what I owed them was to simply survive. But it occurs to me that perhaps this life, this world demands more of me. Perhaps the only way to ensure that the truth is what prevails is to make sure there is no one around to tell these lies.”
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