The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride: A review

I have previously read two of James McBride's novels: The Good Lord Bird and Deacon King Kong both in 2020. They were both five-star reads for me. I can't say that I enjoyed his latest, The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, quite as much; nevertheless, it was an enjoyable read and I don't regret any of the time I spent with it.

The setting of this story is Chicken Hill, a run-down neighborhood in Pottsdown, Pennsylvania. It alternates between two time frames: the 1930s and the 1970s. In both decades, Chicken Hill is a neighborhood of African Americans and immigrant Jews living side by side and sharing life's ambitions and sorrows. 

The action kicks off when workers discover a skeleton at the bottom of an old well. In the hands of a different writer, this might be the beginning of a horror story or a tragedy but with James McBride as our tour guide, it becomes a somewhat Dickensian tragi-comic tale of larger-than-life characters. These characters are eccentric, memorable, and altogether sympathetic.  

One main character is Moshe Ludlow, a striving impresario from Romania, who owns the All-American Dance Hall and Theater and comes up with the novel idea that he should open his dance hall to the Black residents. His wife Chona is a polio survivor with a pronounced limp and is a conscience of the community. 

But in addition to Moshe and Chona, there is a whole list of characters with interesting names like Fatty, Big Soap, Monkey Pants, and Dodo and each one of them has his story to tell. 

Dodo's story is that he is a young Black boy who is unable to hear or speak. When a local doctor who is a member of the KKK comes looking for the boy to send him to a state institution, Chona and her friends band together to keep him hidden.

One's overwhelming impression of these people and their intertwined stories is of their goodness and kindness. This is a gentle story of a community of poor and middle-class people rubbing along together and doing their best with what they have and doing it with integrity and benevolence.  

I find it difficult to even begin to adequately sum up this story. Suffice it to say that if you are looking for a tale that combines comedy and tragedy and tells it all with phenomenal heart, this may well be the book you are looking for!  


  1. A great review of what sounds like an interesting book, Dorothy.

  2. I thank you so much for this review, Dorothy. I heard the author speak in Houston and I have been eagerly awaiting the arrival of this book at my library. He is a wise man, I think.

  3. I had taken this out as an ebook from the New York Public Library and read perhaps 50 or 60 pages (hard to tell, with an ebook) into it but another book I wanted to read (Christian Cooper's memoir) came off reserve and I returned it. I a not sure I will get back to it anytime soon but, with your review, I feel I do need to take another try at it.

  4. I just put this one on my TBR list last week! Of course, I probably won't get around to reading it any time soon. You know how it goes. :D

  5. I've read both of the other two McBride novels you mention in your review and, different as they are from each other, I enjoyed each of them. I've had this one on hold for a while now, and I'm hoping to get it in the next 10 days or so. I'm even more curious about it now that I've read you're review because I haven't read much reaction to it since first spotting it. I requested it solely on the McBride "brand" and how much I liked the first two.

  6. Sounds like a great read! I will add it to my reading wishlist.

  7. Thanks for this review -- I've been wondering about it since Kirkus gave the book it's Fiction Award of the year so it has high regards. I have not read him before but I think I'd like to start with The Good Lord Bird first. I think they even tried to do a TV series off of that book and the historical premise interested me.


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