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!