The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride


Once again James McBride has brought me a lot of joy and continued to win my admiration for his work. This one is set in Pottstown, Pennsylvania and begins in 1972 when a skeleton was discovered in a well. Before much investigation begins, Hurricane Agnes hits and the skeleton and any other evidence is washed to the sea. The author turns then to Chicken Hill in Pottstown in the 1920s and 1930s, where Black folks, recently immigrated Jews from Eastern Europe, and other recent immigrants live.

The main characters are Chona, who runs a store that thanks to her generosity is non-profit; her husband Moshe, owner of the theatre where he brings music, both great Jewish bands and later Black bands; Nate, beloved and feared assistant to Moshe; and Dodo, a young black boy deafened by an exploding stove who is at the center of the tale. McBride unwinds the story of the community’s protection of Dodo from the state’s preference to put him in a horrific institution at a deliberate pace. His method reminded me of Faulkner, as he told of events from different perspectives, introducing new characters as we go.

Chicken Hill folks have their differences among the various ethnicities there, but are united by their alienation from the mainstream of Pottstown. They depend on each other, conscious of where their neighbors might go wrong, and knowing with certainty that they must find a way to protect Dodo. Their connections and their silences are of long standing. This book has an especially long list of characters. One I keep thinking of, Fioria Carissimi, is the mother of Big Soap who works closely with Fatty,  the Black owner of a food joint. She appears on the scene to set Big Soap straight about who did what to whom which she manages to do, despite knowing almost no English.

I had to take a break when I was irrationally worried about what would happen in tense moments.  I knew rationally that it would work out, but still was anxious. I am especially uneasy when preteen boys are threatened.

James McBride, The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, Riverhead Books, 2023, 385 pages (I listened to the audiobook). Available in the public library.

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