• Review
By – January 8, 2024

James McBride’s lat­est nov­el takes place on Chick­en Hill, the low-income sec­tion of Pottstown, PA. In the 1910s, its inhab­i­tants are pri­mar­i­ly Jews and African Amer­i­cans. But by the 1930s, almost all res­i­dents are African Amer­i­can — except for Moshe and Chona, a white Jew­ish cou­ple who own and oper­ate The Heav­en & Earth Gro­cery Store. Chona was raised in this store and has decid­ed to keep it rather than leave, as the rest of the Jews have; and, as a result, she’s built lov­ing rela­tion­ships with the Black folk in town. When they call on her to hide a young dis­abled boy from author­i­ties who want to put him in a men­tal insti­tu­tion, she quick­ly takes up the cause.

There are a num­ber of nov­els that exam­ine the rela­tion­ships between Jews and African Amer­i­cans, but few do so as expert­ly and ele­gant­ly as McBride’s. After years of cul­ti­vat­ing warm rela­tion­ships with their African Amer­i­can neigh­bors, the Jews move away to be near­er to the white Chris­tians in the bet­ter” part of town. They become wary of the Black folk, see­ing prox­im­i­ty to them as a stain that will keep them from advanc­ing out of their social class. The African Amer­i­cans rec­og­nize the Jews’ atti­tude toward them and become resent­ful. Of course, there’s Chona, who, with her immense love and com­pas­sion, tran­scends this divide. Even still, there are those on Chick­en Hill who don’t trust her kind­ness and char­i­ty. Her hus­band Moshe has his con­cerns, too: is it worth it, he asks her, to keep oper­at­ing the store when they have the means to move out and live in a bet­ter” neigh­bor­hood? These many con­flict­ing out­looks inter­sect to cre­ate a robust pic­ture of inter­ra­cial rela­tion­ships at a piv­otal time in Amer­i­can history.

Ear­ly in the book, Dodo, the boy whom Chona is meant to pro­tect, gets tak­en to the men­tal insti­tu­tion. This pro­pels the nov­el into its sec­ond act: plot­ting and ulti­mate­ly exe­cut­ing a res­cue mis­sion. Many com­mu­ni­ties work togeth­er — not just the Jews and the African Amer­i­cans on Chick­en Hill, but also a group of African Amer­i­cans known as the Low­gods, a group that doesn’t want to asso­ciate with the oth­er African Amer­i­cans. They feel that those liv­ing on Chick­en Hill are too much like the white folk, that they reject their African her­itage. Inside the men­tal insti­tu­tion, liv­ing con­di­tions are ter­ri­ble, and a child-preda­tor Low­god works on the floor on which Dodo’s being housed — all of which adds pres­sure for the char­ac­ters to act fast. 

These char­ac­ters are just as com­pelling as the plot; most would be wor­thy of hav­ing a nov­el cen­tered on them. There’s Paper, a Black woman who’s beloved by all the men on Chick­en Hill and is the community’s pri­ma­ry source of news. One morn­ing a week, she comes to the Heav­en & Earth Gro­cery Store to share her gos­sip, con­sis­tent­ly gath­er­ing togeth­er a large crowd. There’s Malachi, a Hasidic immi­grant from East­ern Europe who’s known for his incred­i­ble danc­ing and who, unlike Moshe, believes that Black peo­ple have it bet­ter in Amer­i­ca than Jews because “[a]t least they know who they are.” The nov­el cycles between points of view, allow­ing for Paper, Malachi, and many oth­ers to have their sto­ries told.

The Heav­en & Earth Gro­cery Store is an excel­lent read for those inter­est­ed in Amer­i­can his­to­ry, and it is anoth­er exam­ple of James McBride’s tal­ent as a novelist.

Ben­jamin Selesnick lives and writes in New Jer­sey. His writ­ing has appeared in decomP, Lunch Tick­et, San­ta Fe Writ­ers’ Project Quar­ter­ly, and oth­er pub­li­ca­tions. He holds an MFA in fic­tion from Rutgers-Newark.

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