National Book Award winner McBride (Deacon King Kong) tells a vibrant tale of Chicken Hill, a working-class neighborhood of Jewish, Black, and European immigrant families in Pottstown, Pa., where the 1972 discovery of a human skeleton unearths events that took place several decades earlier. In 1925, Moshe Ludlow owns the town’s first integrated dance hall and theater with his wife, Chona, a beautiful woman who’s undeterred by her polio-related disability and driven by her deep Jewish faith. Chona also runs the Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, where she extends kindness and indefinite credit to her Jewish and Black customers alike. When Nate and Addie Tamblin, friends and employees of the Ludlows who are Black, approach the couple for help keeping their nephew, Dodo, from becoming a ward of the state, Chona doesn’t hesitate to open her home to hide the boy from the authorities. As the racist white “good Christians” from down the hill begin to interfere, claiming to be worried about Dodo’s welfare, a two-fold tragedy occurs that brings the community together to exact justice, which leads to the dead body discovered years later. McBride’s pages burst with life, whether in descriptions of Moshe’s dance hall, where folks get down to Chick Webb’s “gorgeous, stomping, low-down, rip-roaring, heart-racing jazz,” or a fortune teller who dances and cries out to God before registering her premonitions on a typewriter. This endlessly rich saga highlights the different ways in which people look out for one another. (Aug.)
Praise for The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store:
“I keep thinking every time I read one of his books, ‘That’s his best book.’ No. THIS is his best book.” —Ann Patchett
“This is one of those novels that becomes a part of you. It’s a great book. Every character is rich; every detail is rich. I can’t recommend this one highly enough. He’s a great author and I think this is his best work.” —Harlan Coben
“With this story, McBride brilliantly captures a rapidly changing country, as seen through the eyes of the recently arrived and the formerly enslaved . . . And through this evocation, McBride offers us a thorough reminder: Against seemingly impossible odds, even in the midst of humanity’s most wicked designs, love, community and action can save us.” —The New York Times Book Review
“The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store is one of the best novels I’ve read this year. It pulls off the singular magic trick of being simultaneously flattening and uplifting.” —NPR
“[A] tour de force . . . [a] mesmerizing, moving, almost magical tale . . . [McBride] writes sentences and paragraphs that swing like jazz melodies.” —The Associated Press
“Classic McBride: He doesn’t shy away from bold statements about the national catastrophes of race and xenophobia, and he always gives us a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down. The sugar is McBride’s spitfire dialogue and murder-mystery-worthy plot machinations; his characters’ big personalities and bigger storylines; his wisecracking, fast-talking humor; and prose so agile and exuberant that reading him is like being at a jazz jam session. . . . Reading McBride just feels good—we are comforted and entertained, and braced for the hard lessons he also delivers.” —The Atlantic
"Sharp and nimble and warm as a wool hat, James McBride’s prose seems to transcend all earthly concerns, allowing him to write with compassion, humor and authority." —The Philadelphia Inquirer
“A story of community, care, and the lengths to which we'll go for justice, McBride's tale is a wondrous ode to the strength of humanity in a small town.” —Time Magazine
“Enchanting . . . [a] rich, carefully drawn portrait of a Depression-era community of African Americans and Jewish immigrants as they live, love, fight, and, of course, work.” —The Boston Globe
“McBride . . . would never advance any of his books as candidates for the Great American Novel. . . . I’d like to make a case, though, for Deacon King Kong and, now, The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store as better contenders for the 21st-century GAN than many other, more vaunted specimens. . . . In the words of Walt Whitman (an American writer McBride often brings to mind), they contain multitudes.” —Slate
Chicken Hill, a pre—World War II Pennsylvania community, doesn't seem like much: it's poor, with no running water and a population consisting of multiple marginalized groups—Jewish, Black, Italian—all struggling, scheming, and hoping for the best while writhing in seemingly intractable disappointment. But in this latest from McBride (Deacon King Kong), their defeats evolve into triumphs. In this complex novel, McBride takes a mash-up of plots and over a dozen main characters, each with his or her own history, and weaves them together seamlessly with humor, empathy, and a determined sense of justice. The final third of the book focuses on a conspiracy by the people of Chicken Hill to rescue one of their own, a Deaf, Black, 12-year-old orphan named Dodo, from a nightmarish state asylum like something out of Dickens. Dodo was committed to this house of horrors through the treachery of a local doctor and KKK leader, Doc Roberts. But fortune has a way of flipping things around, sometimes in the right direction, and McBride ends the novel with so much poignancy and heartfelt sympathy for his characters that readers will be hard-pressed not to be moved. VERDICT A compelling novel, compellingly written, and not to be missed.—Michael F. Russo
McBride follows up his hit novel Deacon King Kong (2020) with another boisterous hymn to community, mercy, and karmic justice.
It's June 1972, and the Pennsylvania State Police have some questions concerning a skeleton found at the bottom of an old well in the ramshackle Chicken Hill section of Pottstown that’s been marked for redevelopment. But Hurricane Agnes intervenes by washing away the skeleton and all other physical evidence of a series of extraordinary events that began more than 40 years earlier, when Jewish and African American citizens shared lives, hopes, and heartbreak in that same neighborhood. At the literal and figurative heart of these events is Chona Ludlow, the forbearing, compassionate Jewish proprietor of the novel’s eponymous grocery store, whose instinctive kindness and fairness toward the Black families of Chicken Hill exceed even that of her husband, Moshe, who, with Chona’s encouragement, desegregates his theater to allow his Black neighbors to fully enjoy acts like Chick Webb’s swing orchestra. Many local White Christians frown upon the easygoing relationship between Jews and Blacks, especially Doc Roberts, Pottstown’s leading physician, who marches every year in the local Ku Klux Klan parade. The ties binding the Ludlows to their Black neighbors become even stronger over the years, but that bond is tested most stringently and perilously when Chona helps Nate Timblin, a taciturn Black janitor at Moshe’s theater and the unofficial leader of his community, conceal and protect a young orphan named Dodo who lost his hearing in an explosion. He isn’t at all “feeble-minded,” but the government wants to put him in an institution promising little care and much abuse. The interlocking destinies of these and other characters make for tense, absorbing drama and, at times, warm, humane comedy. McBride’s well-established skill with narrative tactics may sometimes spill toward the melodramatic here. But as in McBride’s previous works, you barely notice such relatively minor contrivances because of the depth of characterizations and the pitch-perfect dialogue of his Black and Jewish characters. It’s possible to draw a clear, straight line from McBride’s breakthrough memoir, The Color of Water (1996), to the themes of this latest work.
If it’s possible for America to have a poet laureate, why can’t James McBride be its storyteller-in-chief?
Dominic Hoffman fully inhabits the characters in McBride's fresh, vital, beautifully written historical novel, resulting in a deeply immersive listening experience. The story is set largely in the 1930s in Chicken Hill, a predominantly Black and Jewish neighborhood in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Hoffman varies his accent and intonation and delivers many different languages for the large cast of characters who impact each other's lives, from Chona, the owner of the titular grocery store that serves the community, to Dodo, a 12-year-old Deaf boy. With his mesmerizing performance, Hoffman makes it clear that this interconnectedness is the point as McBride explores themes of racism and anti-Semitism, the immigrant experience and the human experience, and acts of kindness and acts of evil and the consequences of each. J.M.D. Winner of AudioFile Earphones Award © AudioFile 2023, Portland, Maine