Review of James McBride’s “Heaven & Earth Grocery Store” – a Heartwarming Tale of Unity
The latest book from award-winning American writer James McBride, known for The Good Lord Bird and Deacon King Kong, is a heartwarming story of compassion and unity. Set in 1972, the novel begins with the unearthing of a skeleton in a well. While this mystery plays a crucial role in the plot, it is not revisited until the end.
The story takes place during the 1920s and 30s and centers around a group of Jewish immigrants and African Americans living on Chicken Hill in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Moshe, a Romanian Jew and owner of the local theatre and dance hall, becomes enamored with Chona, a beautiful Jewish American. Chona is a passionate reader and vocal advocate against injustice, despite being physically disabled from polio. She harbors no bitterness or shame. While Moshe finds success in his business by alternating between klezmer and jazz, Chona runs the titular grocery store and offers credit to those in need.
After being married for 12 years, Chona becomes ill with a mysterious illness. She rejects treatment from Doctor Roberts, who is associated with the racist group Ku Klux Klan. Instead, she teams up with Moshe’s Black handyman Nate Timblin and his wife Addie to protect a 12-year-old orphan named Dodo. Dodo lost his hearing and his mother in a kitchen stove explosion. When Dodo is sent to the abusive mental institution Pennhurst, the community comes together to try and release him.
McBride effortlessly transports us to another time and place. A musician as well as a writer, he is clearly at home in this period and milieu – his father was African American, his mother a Jewish immigrant from Poland. Every member of his diverse cast earns their place in this epic tale. McBride’s plotting is intricate but deftly handled, his rich characterisation and attention to detail are impressive, his compassion exemplary.
This magnificent book explores bias and champions Chona’s conviction that “every instance of existence presented an opportunity for tikkun olam, to better the world.”
The book “The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store” written by James McBride has been published by Weidenfeld & Nicolson. You can purchase a copy at guardianbookshop.com to support the Guardian and Observer. Additional fees may apply for delivery.