August 2023

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store

By James McBride
Review by
James McBride is a lyricist and musician, and there's a rhythmic quality to his unique sixth novel, which began as an ode to a beloved figure in the author’s life.
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In 1972, digging commences on a new development in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and unearths the desiccated skeletal remains of an unidentified man. This shocking discovery kicks off National Book Award winner James McBride’s riveting sixth novel, but while the man’s identity and how he ended up dead in a farmer’s well are essential mysteries, they aren’t the heart of this gorgeous historical tale. That belongs to the lifesaving relationships between the novel’s diverse groups of people.

Following his acclaimed, blockbuster crime novel, Deacon King Kong, McBride takes a softer turn while expanding beautifully on the themes of race, religion and belonging from his groundbreaking memoir, The Color of Water. Alongside the decadeslong mystery of the man’s remains, there are all kinds of love in The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, from love for a child to the platonic love of friends, co-workers and neighbors. There’s also a beautifully rendered romantic love story between two of the leads. 

In 1930s Pottstown, the multiracial and pluralistic working-class neighborhood of Chicken Hill is witness to care and cooperation as well as conflict among its disparate inhabitants, leading to both redemption and the kind of danger that leaves an anonymous corpse more than six feet under. Chicken Hill is “a tiny area of ramshackle houses and dirt roads where the town’s blacks, Jews, and immigrant whites who couldn’t afford any better lived.” Moshe Ludlow, a Jewish immigrant from Romania who “could talk the horns off the devil’s head,” manages a theater. When he meets Chona Flohr, the brilliant daughter of the local rabbi (who also owns the titular grocery store), he knows that she is the gift that will transform his life for the better. 

While Moshe is struck by Chona’s beauty, it’s her fierce intelligence, fearlessness and “eyes that [shine] with gaiety and mirth” that capture his heart. Despite restrictions on women’s religious participation, Chona is a self-taught biblical scholar. Her body bears the lasting effects of polio; with one leg shorter than the other, she limps and wears a boot with a sole four inches thick. After they marry, with Chona’s help, Moshe becomes a wildly successful theater owner who defies tradition to host Jewish and Black performers together on the stage, attracting crowds from miles around: “The reform snobs from Philadelphia were there in button-down shirts, standing next to ironworkers from Pittsburgh, who crowded against socialist railroad men from Reading wearing caps bearing the Pennsylvania Railroad logo, who stood shoulder to shoulder with coal miners with darkened faces from Uniontown and Spring City.” 

Chona also continues to run the Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, and when so many other Jewish families are finding a way out of Chicken Hill, Chona and Moshe dig in. This inclusive, expansive and defiant love leads Moshe and Chona to embrace an orphaned Black boy, their friends’ ward, who’s targeted by a predatory local Klan leader who’s also the leading doctor in the neighborhood. These actions set off a series of unfortunate and heartbreaking events. 

McBride is a lyricist and musician, and there’s a rhythmic quality to this unique novel, which began as an ode to a beloved figure in McBride’s life: Sy Friend, the director of a camp for disabled children where the author worked for four years in his youth. These origins are visible in the novel’s nuanced portrayals of disability and race, and in the heroic figure of Chona and the myriad other fantastically imperfect humans who populate the polyglot neighborhood of immigrants, Jews and Black people in this heart-rending and hopeful tale of cross-cultural solidarity, love and redemption.

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