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The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store: A Novel

James McBride
Published by Riverhead Books in 2023

Annie, a joyful, literate soul who serves as an elder at my church, found me in the church lobby in between Christmas Eve services. “Merry Christmas, pastor,” she beamed, and handed me a copy of James McBride’s The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store. It was wrapped in a red bow, which held a Christmas card against the cover. As I took it in my hands, I noticed that Annie had written a phrase across the envelope: “tikkun olam.”

McBride’s latest novel, set in the Chicken Hill neighborhood of Pottstown, PA, opens in 1972, as workers clearing the foundation for a new housing development unearth a human skeleton and a mezuzah, a small case that adorns the doorframe of Jewish homes. Police question an old man named Malachi, the last Jew left on Chicken Hill. But before the authorities can solve the puzzle, Hurricane Agnes sweeps through and washes away any evidence of the crime. The book then jumps back a half century to the 1920’s, to unfold the riddle of what happened. McBride’s novel, then, is a murder mystery which contains a powerful story of place and community, of love and hate and compassion and violence. It’s a whodunit wrapped around a quintessentially American novel. 

As his readers will have come to expect, McBride develops thoroughly three-dimensional characters. He paints them with bold literary brushstrokes; even their names are almost larger-than-life: Dodo and Monkey Pants, Big Soap and Fatty Davis and Newspaper Millison. And not only do the characters that comprise Heaven and Earth Grocery Store have immense personalities, they’re also complicated in a way that rings true to real life. Jewish and black immigrants are not only the objects of racism, but they also perpetrate it among their fellow marginalized Chicken Hill residents. A character like Nate Timblin, a consistent, upstanding man, proves capable of both rage and love. McBride depicts realistic-enough characters that even his main villain, Doc Roberts, a Pottstown doctor who marched with the Klu Klux Klan and who perpetrates the central act of defiling violence in the story, is rendered in such a way that the reader can at least sympathize with how he comes to be who he is. 

McBride takes his time introducing the main characters in the first two of Heaven & Earth Grocery Store’s three parts. This is no John Grisham thriller, and readers who like their plot to proceed at a breakneck pace will likely be disappointed. One character takes center stage after another, and McBride often takes the time to tell their family history several generations back, describing how this African-American family migrated north to find freedom and a new home, or how that Jewish character emigrated from Lithuania, or Germany, or Poland. The cumulative effect, though, is striking: Heaven & Earth Grocery Store depicts an emblematic neighborhood in an ever-changing America, as various groups gravitate to the “American dream,” learn to live together, forge friendships, and negotiate both the commonality and differences of the American melting pot. In the Chicken Hill of the 1920’s and 1930’s, many of the Jewish residents of the Hill were slowly moving into downtown, away from their black neighbors, into Main St. homes. Moshe and Chona Ludlow, two of the novel’s main characters, who own and manage the grocery store from which the book takes its name, argue at one point about whether to stay on Chicken Hill or move downtown. Chona protests that she doesn’t want to move:

“‘Moshe, I like it here. I grew up in this house. The postman knows where I live.’

Exasperated, Moshe pointed out the kitchen window toward Pottstown below. ‘Down the hill is America!’

But Chona was adamant. ‘America is here.’”

Much of the plot in Heaven & Earth Grocery Store revolves around Moshe and Chona, the Jewish couple who reside in increasingly-black Chicken Hill. Moshe is a theater owner, and the only one in the area who would book both Jewish and black musical acts. Chona runs the neighborhood grocery store;  unlike the other stores in town, she serves everyone, black, Jewish, or Protestant; she lets the down-on-their-luck run up tabs she never collects on; she’s a functional mother to many of the neighborhood’s children. She and Moshe wind up taking in Dodo, the deaf nephew of Nate, Moshe’s employee at the theater. The pace quickens, and the neighborhood rallies as Dodo is seized by the police and sent to Pennhurst, a facility for disabled children where they endure terrible conditions. 

The hero of the story in many ways is Chona: her moral constitution and unwavering compassion move both black and Jewish residents of Chicken Hill to try to save Dodo. McBride writes of Chona, “To her, the world was not a china closet where you admire this and don’t touch that. Rather, she saw it as a place where every act of living was a chance for tikkun olam, to improve the world. The tiny woman with the bad foot was all soul.”

At its core, this is what the book is: a testament to the power of tikkun olam, the kind of large-hearted living that repairs a fractured world.