An American Tale of Love & Community

March 6, 2024 in Library Corner

By Robin Jacobson. 

heaven earth grocery store coverHow can a book full of societal evils like racism, antisemitism, and child abuse manage to be heartwarming and uplifting?  This is the magic of The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, the recent novel by celebrated author James McBride.

Like a murder mystery, the novel opens with the discovery of a dead body.  In 1972, Pennsylvania state troopers question an elderly Jewish man about a human skeleton found at the bottom of a well with a mezuzah.  To learn the identity of the skeleton – and much more – readers follow McBride’s narrative back to Pottstown, Pennsylvania (a real place), in the 1920s and 1930s. There, readers meet a large cast of memorable characters – Jews, Blacks, and Italians – who make their home in a low-income, tumbledown neighborhood called Chicken Hill.

A Common Cause

Chicken Hill residents Moshe and Chona Ludlow own two theaters, as well as the Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, a kosher market established by Chona’s rabbi father.  The theaters, where Moshe features Jewish klezmer bands and Black jazz musicians, are profitable (especially after Moshe opens them to Black patrons).  In contrast, the grocery store loses money daily because of big-hearted Chona’s practice of extending credit to needy customers.

Moshe emigrated from Romania, but Chona grew up in Chicken Hill’s tiny Jewish community.  She understands her town and its residents, who love her and tolerate her oddities.  These include an enthusiasm for reading Talmud and books on socialism and unions.  Chona is comfortable challenging authority, unlike her immigrant husband.

So, when Nate and Addie Timblin, a Black couple who work for Moshe and Chona, ask them to hide their 12-year-old nephew, Dodo, Chona is all-in from the first, discounting Moshe’s hesitation.  Dodo is sweet and smart, but because he is deaf, state officials want to commit him to the notorious Pennhurst State Hospital for the Insane and Feeble-Minded.  The plot careens along a wild, zany path as the diverse residents of Chicken Hill put aside their distrust and grievances, largely out of loyalty to Chona, to unite in a common mission to rescue Dodo.

One of their foes is Doc Roberts, who leads the annual Ku Klux Klan parade.  Even under his white sheet, Roberts is recognizable because, like Chona, he is a polio survivor who walks with a limp.  Roberts laments the “invasion” of Jews, other European immigrants, and Black migrants from southern states into his once-white, Presbyterian Pottstown.  Roberts is one of multiple characters who have differing visions of America.  These wide-ranging views of America’s past and present are among the book’s most interesting and thought-provoking elements.

James McBride

A National Book Award-winning author, musician, and screenwriter, James McBride won early acclaim for his memoir, The Color of Water (1996), describing his early years as the Black child of a Jewish mother who emigrated from Poland.  Other McBride books have focused on the abolitionist, John Brown (The Good Lord Bird) and a Brooklyn housing project (Deacon King Kong).  President Obama presented McBride with a National Humanities Medal for “humanizing the complexities of discussing race in America.”

In interviews, McBride says that Heaven & Earth was inspired by a long-ago summer job where he worked at a pioneering camp for the disabled.  The character of Chona resembles McBride’s Jewish grandmother, a polio survivor who ran a grocery store in a Black neighborhood of a small town.  Asked about the concept of tikkun olam (repairing the world), which weaves through the novel, McBride says he loves its purity and simplicity.  To heal the world, McBride says, “You start right where you are.”