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Review: Ladee Hubbard's 'The Talented Ribkins' finds heroes in Florida

Not every superhero hails from the Marvel or DC universes.

In Ladee Hubbard's debut novel, The Talented Ribkins, they live quietly in towns and cities around Florida — a judge's widow in Sarasota, a teacher in Gainesville, a businessman in Tallahassee, an antiques dealer in St. Augustine. The last of those is Johnny Ribkins, the book's main character.

Once upon a time, back in the 1960s, Johnny and several of his relatives and friends, all of them African-American, were members of what they called the Justice Committee. Each of the five had an unusual power, and they came together to use those powers for good — aiding the civil rights movement. They didn't wear spandex costumes or fly through the air; they stayed in the background and acted anonymously. As Johnny says, the Justice Committee was not so much a band of flashy superheroes as "a group of people trying to do what they could to keep their heroes safe."

But the committee crumbled, the members grew apart, and now Johnny is 72 years old and in a little trouble.

After the Justice Committee's glory days, Johnny had turned his power to less worthy pursuits. That power is mapmaking — which might not sound like a superpower, but Johnny can map anything, including places he has never set foot in.

Once he discovered he had a half brother, Franklin, whose power was the ability to climb straight up walls — no equipment necessary — the two of them combined their powers and got into the burglary business. After Franklin died young of an overdose, Johnny ran the antique store he inherited from his artist father and went to work for a sketchy businessman named Melvin Marks.

And now he owes Marks $100,000, and he has a week to get it, or Marks' two henchmen, who are following Johnny around in a yellow Camaro, will do something bad to him.

The opening chapter of The Talented Ribkins finds Johnny visiting Franklin's last home in Lehigh Acres. He's there because it's one of a bunch of places where, back in the day, he buried most of the ill-gotten proceeds of his career as a thief.

Johnny finds the money, but he also discovers that Franklin's girlfriend, Meredith, still lives there — and so does her and Franklin's daughter, 13-year-old Eloise, whom Johnny didn't know existed.

That makes her a Ribkins, of course, so Johnny can't just wave goodbye. The family's bonds are too deep for that. Their surname is a clipped version of the name of their storied ancestor, a man known as the Rib King for his legendary barbecue sauce. He's a mysterious figure, although his descendants do know he was the sole survivor of a white attack that resulted in an entire black town being burned to the ground (reminiscent of the real 1923 destruction of the Florida town of Rosewood).

That history isn't all they have in common. There is "something a lot of folks in the family shared: little sparks of something special that didn't seem to make much sense and had generally caused more confusion than anything else. Because, not knowing what to do with these gifts, many of them spent years trying to understand them, trying to figure out where they belonged and who they were."

Eloise has such a gift, and Johnny wants to get to know her and guide her in how to use her power. Meredith is about to set off on a business trip, so she agrees to let Eloise travel with Johnny on what she thinks is just an ordinary road trip to visit family and friends.

They'll do just that, but Johnny will also be digging up bags, lunch boxes and briefcases full of cash and jewelry at stops in Fort Myers, Buena Vista, Winter Park and around the Tampa Bay area.

They'll visit the Justice Committee members, like Johnny's cousin Simone, who lives in the posh Sarasota neighborhood of Cherokee Estates. Although she's Johnny's age, "Simone was possessed of a particularly potent power of illusion and could, at will, make people think they were in the presence of the most beautiful woman they'd ever seen."

Then there's Bertrand, another cousin, whose superpower is spitting fire. He lives with his father, Bart, who although he suffers from dementia can still imitate perfectly the voice of anyone he's ever heard.

Their homestead near Ocoee gives Eloise a glimpse into a time when "this was a place where blacks were not welcome after dark," when people all over the state knew about "Bart's compound, where a group of black army veterans sat with shotguns. ... That was how it had always been: if you could just make it to Uncle Bart's Woods before sundown, you were safe."

Johnny's treasure hunt will become not just a cash-gathering exercise but a quest into his own past and an education for Eloise.

Hubbard, who lives in New Orleans, grew up in Florida, spending some of her childhood in St. Petersburg. She makes effective use of the state — so often the habitat of fortune-hunters and shape-changers — as the setting for Johnny's travels.

The Talented Ribkins wears its magical realist elements lightly, weaving them into a realistic family story with a wider cultural context. The novel calls out to a range of other books, such as Toni Morrison's Song of Solomon, evoked when Franklin "(s)aid he climbed because he couldn't fly." There's a hint of Thomas Pynchon in Johnny's abandoned, then rediscovered great project, a map that would "chart actual corridors of power and furthermore figure out how to anticipate movement through those corridors."

Hubbard is a graceful and intelligent writer in whose hands the Ribkinses' superpowers are both real and symbolic of the dreams and invincibility we have when we're young, and that are inevitably reshaped by age and experience.

As Johnny says to Eloise, "(Y)ou don't understand what a map is. ... It's alright, most people don't. Think a map is an answer when it's really a proposition. Don't tell you nothing except where you already are. ...

"It's why sometimes you wind up having to map your way out of your own map."

Contact Colette Bancroft at cbancroft@tampabay.com or (727) 893-8435. Follow @colettemb.

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