Book Review - The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store

This tender and humane work by the prize-winning American author of The Good Lor Bird and Deacon King Kong is an uplifting tale of kindness and community. James McBride’s latest novel opens in 1972 with the discovery of a skeleton in a well. It is a mystery to be solved and pivotal to his plot, but we don’t revisit the scene until the final pages.

Set in the 1920s and 30s, The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store follows the fortunes of a group of Jewish immigrants and African Americans who live together on Chicken Hill in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Moshe, a Romanian Jew who owns the local theatre and dance hall, falls for Chona, a beautiful Jewish American. She is an avid reader, outspoken against injustice who, despite being “crippled from polio”, harbours “not an ounce of bitterness or shred of shame”. While Moshe makes a success of his business (alternating between klezmer and jazz), she runs the novel’s eponymous grocery store, offering credit to those in need.

After 12 years of happy marriage, Chona develops a mysterious illness. She refuses to be treated by the odious Doc Roberts, who marches with the Ku Klux Klan. Instead, she helps Moshe’s Black handyman Nate Timblin and his wife, Addie, protect a 12-year-old orphan named Dodo who lost his hearing (and his mother) in an explosion caused by a kitchen stove. After Dodo is incarcerated in Pennhurst, an abusive mental institution, the community unite in a bid to free him.

McBride effortlessly transports us to another time and place. A musician as well as a writer, he is clearly at home in this period and milieu – his father was African American, his mother a Jewish immigrant from Poland. Every member of his diverse cast earns their place in this epic tale. McBride’s plotting is intricate but deftly handled, his rich characterisation and attention to detail are impressive, his compassion exemplary.

This glorious novel interrogates prejudice and celebrates Chona’s belief that “every act of living was a chance for tikkun olam, to improve the world”.

Orignally published by The Observer