Until recently — so recently it’s shameful to think about it — the smiling faces of Black servants like Uncle Ben and Aunt Jemima were a long-accepted way to market food and other domestic products. Few consumers wondered what the stories behind those faces might be.
In her terrific new novel, The Rib King, Ladee Hubbard looks beyond the label to tell one of those stories, and it’s moving, surprising, compelling and strange.
Hubbard, who lives in New Orleans, spent part of her childhood in Florida. The Rib King is a prequel to her impressive 2017 debut novel, The Talented Ribkins. That book, set in the near present, told the engrossing story of a Black family scattered across Florida who each had an unusual superpower. They shared a mysterious common ancestor, a man known as the Rib King — their surname is a blurred version of that title — who became famous decades ago for a popular barbecue sauce.
The Rib King explains why that family name became disguised, and a whole lot more.
Its story is set early in the 20th century, in an unnamed Northern city that sounds something like Chicago. Its first half focuses on Mr. Sitwell, the groundskeeper for a wealthy family, the Barclays. Like the rest of the couple’s household staff, Sitwell is Black, having come to the house as a young boy thanks to a peculiar custom of Mrs. Barclay’s. Each year, she takes in three young teenage boys from a Black orphanage. Working with the Barclays’ staff trains them in skills they can use to get jobs as adults. Mrs. Barclay thinks of it as an act of charity; some of the staff see it as a source of cheap labor.
Sitwell is the only one of those boys who stayed beyond the allotted year; now in his mid-30s, he’s a reliable teammate to Mamie, the no-nonsense cook who runs the house, and to the chauffeur, Whitmore, and a pretty young housemaid named Jennie Williams. Sitwell is a mentor to the current trio of orphans, Bart, Mac and Frederick, who look enough alike to be brothers and are as closely bonded as family. They’re a bit distractible but cheerful and energetic, and Sitwell is proud of their progress. “He’d soon realized that the easiest way to distinguish between them was to look for their scars,” Hubbard writes: One has a facial scar, one lost part of an ear to a watchdog, and one is missing the toes on one foot, chopped off, he tells Sitwell, to keep him from running away.
Then Sitwell finds them excitedly reading a book called The Life and Times of Cherokee Red, Wild Man of the Reconstruction. It’s a cheesy dime novel that sounds like a Western shoot-’em-up about a small town being burned down. The boys explain that a recent dinner guest of the Barclays handed out copies of the book, and this one was left behind. They didn’t steal it, they assure him, knowing theft by servants is a firing offense.
Sitwell believes them, but the book itself disturbs him. Its violent story takes place not in the West but in Florida, a place Sitwell left when he was 9 years old. It reminds him “that his real home would always be a small village in the swamps of Florida that twenty-five years before he’d been forced to stand and watch as it burned to the ground.” The only survivor of that lethal attack, he’s never told anyone about it.
The book’s character names and the outline of its plot tell Sitwell that it’s based on the real massacre he survived, but the story has been distorted for racist reasons — to make white people the heroes when he knows they were the killers. He realizes that the dinner guests who gave the Barclays the book, a pair of Florida businessmen with whom Barclay is in negotiations over an important deal, have a buried connection to his own past.
In the early part of the book, Hubbard paints Sitwell as an admirable character: calm, resourceful, generous with his help, a man of integrity. But the boys’ book has a powerful effect on him. Then Mr. Barclay, whose financial situation is dire, makes a deal to sell a meat sauce recipe concocted by Sitwell and Mamie to another businessman. Sitwell’s image, or a cartoonish version of it — the Rib King — will be on the label, but Barclay and the other white man will make the money.
Hubbard takes the reader right up to the brink of the disaster that results, and then jumps the second half of the book to 10 years later. Now its focus is Jennie Williams, no longer a housemaid. She’s a businesswoman and entrepreneur, the owner of a small beauty salon. Some of Jennie’s past comes to light: She, too, was born into poverty in the South. Married at 11, a mother at 12, Jennie ran away North with her little daughter, Cutie Pie. She’s proud to have raised the girl on her own, and now Cutie is about to graduate from nursing school.
Jennie is hard at work on a deal to market a salve she and Mamie developed, which functions both as a skin cream and a cure for a certain condition ladies of that era don’t talk about (yeast infection). If she can find a backer, most likely a white one, she can be rich.
Jennie hasn’t seen or heard from Sitwell for a decade, but now she sees street banners with the Rib King’s grinning, crowned visage, announcing his publicity appearance in the city. Just as suddenly as that dime novel upended his life, his return will blow up hers.
The book’s second half becomes a surreally tinged mystery as Jennie’s quest for financial backing becomes increasingly tied to her realization that her memory of what happened at the Barclay house is not the entire story. What Sitwell did then, she discovers, might still be going on, and every time she thinks she’s found an answer, another version surfaces.
Hubbard weaves large issues into The Rib King: racism in all its manifestations, from the tedious everyday indignities its characters endure to staggering economic inequality and unpunished violence. The Great Migration, the early years of the civil rights movement and the rise of the Black middle class all provide background for the story. Hubbard’s measured, elegant style is a grounding contrast to it all, and she crafts a complex, suspenseful plot with skill.
But, most of all, The Rib King is about its characters, complex, engaging, determined to rise.
The Rib King
By Ladee Hubbard
Amistad, 384 pages, $27.99