STARRED REVIEW
February 2021

The Rib King

By Ladee Hubbard

In the era of the belated (and semi-involuntary) retirement of the likes of Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth, The Rib King could hardly be more prescient, as it centers on a Black man who is the face of a food brand.

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In the era of the belated (and semi-involuntary) retirement of the likes of Uncle Ben, Aunt Jemima and Mrs. Butterworth, The Rib King could hardly be more prescient, as it centers on a Black man who is the face of a food brand.

The novel’s first half takes place near the beginning of World War I, a time when the Civil War was no further removed from memory than the Vietnam War is from our minds today. And while the formerly well-to-do white Barclay family is inclined to behave less spitefully toward people of different races, they are by no means paragons of enlightenment. Much as in the Depression-era classic My Man Godfrey, it turns out that the key to solving the family’s financial ills may be held by the overlooked butler, in this case August Sitwell. He agrees to deliver a recipe for—and to be the public image of—a meat sauce that establishes him nationwide as the Rib King.

Fast forward a decade, and one of his former co-workers, Jennie Williams, has a product of her own to sell, which sweeps her unwillingly back into the Rib King’s orbit. In this half of the book, Ladee Hubbard’s talent really shines as Jennie navigates a maze of intrigue involving revenge, betrayal, economic exploitation, racial conflict and the often brutal exercise of power.

Hubbard’s depiction of a shadow economy bracketed by race is compelling and insightful, reminiscent of playwright August Wilson’s finest work. Woven into this narrative is a captivating depiction of Black feminist agency at a time not long after white women had gained the right to vote. It’s little wonder that Hubbard won the Hurston/Wright Legacy Award for debut fiction in 2018.

Ultimately the reason to read The Rib King is not its timeliness or its insight into politics or Black culture, but because it accomplishes what the best fiction sets out to do: It drops you into a world you could not otherwise visit and makes you care deeply about what happens there.

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The Rib King

The Rib King

By Ladee Hubbard
Amistad
ISBN 9780062979063

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