THE HEAVEN & EARTH GROCERY STORE rating: five stars ⭐⭐⭐⭐⭐.
The setting for THE HEAVEN & EARTH GROCERY STORE by James McBride (Penguin Random House, August 8, 2023) is the outskirts of a Pennsylvania steel town in the 1930s—a place called Chicken Hill. It is home to a mix of Jewish, Black, and Italian households. They are brought together by the injustice that befalls a Jewish woman, Chona (who is loved by everyone) and the Black orphan she takes in, whose nickname is Dodo. Due to almost complete hearing loss, Dodo is at risk of being institutionalized as a ward of the state. The main character is Moshe, Chona’s adoring Jewish husband, an integrated theater owner who books diverse musical acts and who wants everyone to get along, maybe, I dunno, dance and sing?
Disclaimer: Thanks to Edelweiss Plus/Above the Treeline and Penguin Random House for sending me a copy of this book for review consideration. All opinions are my own.
Moshe also wouldn’t mind moving up in society, getting a nicer house, and mixing with the White crowd downtown in Pottsville proper. Chona isn’t having it. Her project, other than caring for Dido, is running the Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, about which, no spoilers.
McBride unveils a rich tapestry of characters in this multiracial society, including the proud White populace downtown. Even the Black community itself is diverse: some migrants from the deep South are Gullah and hold to African traditions. The Jewish immigrants too are vastly different, depending on country of origin.
Every kind of prejudice is depicted—racial prejudice, interracial prejudice, and most forcefully, prejudice against people with disabilities. The book isn’t cynical despite all this. There is hope, and heart.
Each character has unique motivations and a fascinating backstory, even the villain. They each have a different bead on the main plot: the Jewish woman, the Black orphan she unofficially adopted, and what happens to them. Rumors fly thick and fast on Chicken Hill. White men hold the law in their hands and the truth would cause more harm than good to those few who know the facts. Overshadowing the kaleidoscope of human perspectives is one great mystery: at the beginning of the novel, decades after all this takes place, a skeleton is found in a well on Chicken Hill. Whose is it and how did it get there?
Phenomenal. Starts out odd and vague at first but then gets better and better as each character appears in the stage lights. The ending left me shaking with emotion. It is now up to any other book to dethrone THE HEAVEN & EARTH GROCERY STORE as my favorite book of 2023.1In case you are wondering, my favorite book of 2022 was DEMON COPPERHEAD by Barbara Kingsolver; my favorite book of 2021 was MATRIX by Lauren Groff, and my favorite book of 2020 was PIRANESI by Susanna Clarke.
If you haven’t read McBride’s acclaimed novels THE GOOD LORD BIRD and DEACON KING KONG, you absolutely must. THE GOOD LORD BIRD was pressed into my hands by my dear book pal Tom in the Strand in NYC.2Tom’s LinkedIn profile is the funniest on the platform. Because of my love of THE GOOD LORD BIRD, I got DEACON KING KONG as soon as reviewer-ly possible and devoured it immediately, then bought it to add to the staggering piles of much-loved hardcovers in my house.
The structure of THE HEAVEN & EARTH GROCERY STORE reminded me of OLIVE KITTERIDGE by Elizabeth Strout (Penguin Random House, 2008), in which the reader is exposed to many different points of view with seamless, stellar writing. If this novel also won the Pulitzer Prize for fiction it wouldn’t surprise me at all.
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