The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store

The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store

By James McBride

Posted by Etta Donnell


Granted, at the center of James McBride’s new work is a superb murder mystery. However, The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store moves far beyond unraveling the quandary facing a property development company which, in 1972, discovers a skeleton and a mezuzah in an abandoned well in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. An emotionally affecting tragedy, the novel additionally evokes the plight of a black deaf/mute orphan nicknamed Dodo, who’s hiding from the ugly face of government officials in racist America. However, what makes McBride’s novel one of the most compelling for 2023 is Chona, an invincible character whose “every act of living was a chance for tikkun olam to improve the world."


Chicken Hill, 1930s, is a culturally diverse neighborhood of immigrant Jews and African Americans---regular folks who aspire to earn inclusivity into the Land of the Free. Of course there are some exceptions. Doc Roberts always marches in the Ku Klux Klan parade and the irascible, Lithuanian twins, Irv and Marvin Skrupskelis, who certainly craft the best shoes, annoy everyone with their arrogance. Chicken Hill’s spiritual stalwarts, Reverend Spriggs and Rabbi Feldman (nicknamed Fartzel) are somewhat off ‘derech’ as well. But Chicken Hill is also home to Moshe and Chona Ludlow and African American neighbors and friends, Nate and Addie Timblin.


A Romanian immigrant, Moshe owns a dance hall and theatre that features both Klezmer and jazz music. Handyman, Nate Timblin, manages Moshe’s theatre, a venue that brings new immigrants together. When business begins to boom, Moshe wants to leave Chicken Hill as did the other 17 Jewish families. Chona remains adamant. “America is here,” she says. They stay, making their home above the grocery.


Chona has lived in Chicken Hill since the day her father Yakov, a Bulgarian immigrant with assistant, American Black stonemason, Shad Davis, built the Achavat Achim “shul.” Crippled with a permanent limp from polio at the age of four, Chona loved reading Hebrew and Yiddish books and often quoted the Talmud. She managed the neighborhood grocery store, a vital hub for community “greenies.”


More often than not, the store showed no profit, yet Chona extended credit to anyone and rarely kept a record of debts. Everyone loved her. During Chona’s undiagnosed and prolonged illness, Addie didn’t leave her bedside and maintained Chona’s kosher kitchen. When the authorities came to take Dodo to a “special school to educate him,” Chona volunteered to protect him from going to a “nuthouse." She treated Dodo as she would her own child and loved him more than her own life battling establishment power brokers who threatened to take Dodo from her.


A child of a Black American father and a Jewish mother, author James McBride champions inclusivity and acceptance in a novel that elevates both.