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.

Discussion Questions

Book Club:

The Heav­en & Earth Gro­cery Store begins with a mys­tery — a body dis­cov­ered in a well, found dur­ing the con­struc­tion of a new hous­ing project. The year is 1972, and police go to the only remain­ing Jew in town to ask what he knows about the body, which was found with a mezuzah. Not able to learn any­thing from old Malachi, the police leave, promis­ing to return when they have more evi­dence. But the next day, a hur­ri­cane destroys four coun­ties around Pottstown, PA, includ­ing Chick­en Hill, the neigh­bor­hood where this lyri­cal­ly writ­ten, heart-wrench­ing, and unfor­get­table sto­ry takes place.

The author brings us back in time, forty-sev­en years before the hur­ri­cane, to Chick­en Hill, a neigh­bor­hood made up of poor Black Amer­i­cans and Jew­ish immi­grants strug­gling to get by. Chona and Moshe are cen­tral to the sto­ry and to Chick­en Hill. Chona is the pro­pri­etor of the Heav­en and Earth Gro­cery Store, which serves the diverse com­mu­ni­ty, most of whom buy on cred­it. Moshe owns the suc­cess­ful All Amer­i­can Dance Hall and The­ater, which high­lights Klezmer acts and African Amer­i­can bands. The inte­gra­tion is an affront to the white Chris­t­ian res­i­dents of Pottstown, one for which Moshe is repeat­ed­ly fined. Rela­tion­ships between Chick­en Hill neigh­bors become stronger through shared chal­lenges, and they come togeth­er to try to save a young deaf orphan, Dodo, who is wrong­ful­ly insti­tu­tion­al­ized — anoth­er beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten char­ac­ter who finds him­self in a seem­ing­ly impos­si­ble situation. 

This nov­el has it all: a unique and cap­ti­vat­ing sto­ry­line with many sub­plots, inter­est­ing and well-devel­oped char­ac­ters, and a uni­ver­sal mes­sage of love and com­mu­ni­ty — heav­en and earth.” 


In a sprawl­ing and beau­ti­ful­ly writ­ten tale suf­fused with tikkun olam, James McBride pries opens our hearts bit by bit with each char­ac­ter he intro­duces. It’s 1925 in Pottstown, Penn­syl­va­nia, and the Jew­ish and Black com­mu­ni­ties share an area of town known as Chick­en Hill. There’s both kind­ness and fric­tion between these groups, but their com­mon ene­my — the peo­ple who run the town — brings them together.

McBride cre­ates myths and folk­loric heroes over the course of a nov­el that con­tains every imag­in­able human emo­tion. His parade of char­ac­ters might have come to life out of a Marc Cha­gall or Romare Bear­den paint­ing. There is great love and sor­row as the town changes dur­ing a peri­od of eleven years. The nov­el begins with a mys­tery and ends with the solu­tion, but that frame offers so much more. We learn about love from Moshe Lud­low and his wife, Chona — the beat­ing heart of the nov­el — as well as from Addie and Nate, who work for them, and from a beau­ti­ful deaf boy named Dodo. The entire cast of char­ac­ters shows us how we can live life to the fullest, with humor and wis­dom, no mat­ter the pain of the past or the chal­lenges of the present.

The Heav­en & Earth Gro­cery Store is a joy to read, a gem of a book that will stand the test of time.