The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride 2023
This is a big book, not just because it runs to 385 pages, but because McBride, winner of the National Book Award in 2013 for ‘The Good Lord Bird’, has written a masterpiece. Creating a fictional world in exquisite detail, characters that live and breathe on the page, and a plot that keeps one on the edge of their seat, McBride’s book is likely to win more awards this year.
The action takes place in Pottstown, PA in the 1930’s. The residents of the Chicken Hill neighborhood are poor Blacks and Jews who are too poor to move down the hill and into the town proper. We meet Moshe who owns two theaters which are doing well now that he’s booking Negro bands and orchestras and who has enough money to move down the hill. Standing in the way of the move is his beloved wife of 12 years, Chona whose father built the synagogue on Chicken Hill. Chona, limping from a childhood bout with polio, runs the Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, dispensing wisdom and giving credit to anyone who needs it. Chona also shelters Dodo, a 12 year old Negro who was orphaned and who lost his hearing when a stove exploded in his home’s kitchen. The state child welfare agency wants to ‘save’ Dodo by placing him in the nightmarish Pennhurst Hospital. When he is eventually incarcerated there through the actions of the despicable Doc Roberts, Dodo connects with another inappropriately institutionalized child who he names Monkey Pants. If this sounds complicated, you haven’t even met Nate and Addie, Fatty, Rusty, and Big Soap, Miggy, Son of Man, and Malachi among the rest of the cast of characters.
The book begins with an italicized first chapter in the present time where a skeleton is found in a long abandoned well. The skeleton has some red threads about it as well as a mezuzah inscribed with Home of the Greatest Dancer in the World. Over the ensuing 385 pages, each of these elements becomes clear and the wonderful Epilogue (also italicized) draws all of these plot elements together. We learn of Dodo’s life and death as an old man surrounded by family in South Carolina where he was spirited by his great uncle Nate, two Jewish railroad men, a number of Negro Pullman workers, and memories of a ‘woman with the shining black hair, sparkling eyes, easy laugh, and magic marbles.”
The final pages of this remarkable book are the acknowledgements, a section which I always read because it often contains fascinating information about the origin and writing of the book. The acknowledgements in ‘Heaven’ are a prime example. McBride tells the story of Sy Friend, who founded a camp for what were then called ‘handicapped children’ in the 1950’s. McBride worked at that camp as a counselor during his college days at Oberlin. He writes about the camp, “We were all poorly paid and overworked. But the lessons we learned from Sy left us rich.” It’s a wonderful ending from a reality that produced a wonderful novel. Highly recommended!