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Reviews for The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store

by James McBride

Publishers Weekly
(c) Copyright PWxyz, LLC. All rights reserved

National Book Award winner McBride (Deacon King Kong) tells a vibrant tale of Chicken Hill, a working-class neighborhood of Jewish, Black, and European immigrant families in Pottstown, Pa., where the 1972 discovery of a human skeleton unearths events that took place several decades earlier. In 1925, Moshe Ludlow owns the town’s first integrated dance hall and theater with his wife, Chona, a beautiful woman who’s undeterred by her polio-related disability and driven by her deep Jewish faith. Chona also runs the Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, where she extends kindness and indefinite credit to her Jewish and Black customers alike. When Nate and Addie Tamblin, friends and employees of the Ludlows who are Black, approach the couple for help keeping their nephew, Dodo, from becoming a ward of the state, Chona doesn’t hesitate to open her home to hide the boy from the authorities. As the racist white “good Christians” from down the hill begin to interfere, claiming to be worried about Dodo’s welfare, a two-fold tragedy occurs that brings the community together to exact justice, which leads to the dead body discovered years later. McBride’s pages burst with life, whether in descriptions of Moshe’s dance hall, where folks get down to Chick Webb’s “gorgeous, stomping, low-down, rip-roaring, heart-racing jazz,” or a fortune teller who dances and cries out to God before registering her premonitions on a typewriter. This endlessly rich saga highlights the different ways in which people look out for one another. (Aug.)

Library Journal
(c) Copyright Library Journals LLC, a wholly owned subsidiary of Media Source, Inc. No redistribution permitted.

Chicken Hill, a pre—World War II Pennsylvania community, doesn't seem like much: it's poor, with no running water and a population consisting of multiple marginalized groups—Jewish, Black, Italian—all struggling, scheming, and hoping for the best while writhing in seemingly intractable disappointment. But in this latest from McBride (Deacon King Kong), their defeats evolve into triumphs. In this complex novel, McBride takes a mash-up of plots and over a dozen main characters, each with his or her own history, and weaves them together seamlessly with humor, empathy, and a determined sense of justice. The final third of the book focuses on a conspiracy by the people of Chicken Hill to rescue one of their own, a Deaf, Black, 12-year-old orphan named Dodo, from a nightmarish state asylum like something out of Dickens. Dodo was committed to this house of horrors through the treachery of a local doctor and KKK leader, Doc Roberts. But fortune has a way of flipping things around, sometimes in the right direction, and McBride ends the novel with so much poignancy and heartfelt sympathy for his characters that readers will be hard-pressed not to be moved. VERDICT A compelling novel, compellingly written, and not to be missed.—Michael F. Russo

Book list
From Booklist, Copyright © American Library Association. Used with permission.

McBride is the maestro of the neighborhood saga, following the Carnegie-winning, Brooklyn-set Deacon King Kong (2020) with a tale of strife and love set in Chicken Hill, a hardscrabble section of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, that is home to African Americans who fled racial violence in the Deep South and Jews who escaped the pogroms of Eastern Europe. Lovely and righteous Chona, left disabled after a bout with polio, takes over Chicken Hill’s sole grocery store after the death of her rabbi father, while Moshe, her adoring, jazz-fan husband, runs a theater, becoming the first manager around to welcome both whites and Blacks. Nate, an African American, is his trusted assistant; Addie, Nate’s wife, is close to Chona, and their neighbors are vibrant, complicated individuals, each improvising ways to get by, ultimately joining forces to try to keep the authorities from taking Dodo, a smart, sweet, Black, orphaned deaf boy, to the hellish state asylum. McBride incisively and prismatically evokes the timbre of Jewish and Black lives of the times, while spinning intriguing backstories and choreographing telling struggles over running water, class divides, and prejudice of all kinds. Funny, tender, knockabout, gritty, and suspenseful, McBride’s microcosmic, socially critiquing, and empathic novel dynamically celebrates difference, kindness, ingenuity, and the force that compels us to move heaven and earth to help each other.HIGH-DEMAND BACKSTORY: Much-awarded, Oprah-anointed, and best-selling McBride is a must-read writer for an immense audience.

Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.

McBride follows up his hit novel Deacon King Kong (2020) with another boisterous hymn to community, mercy, and karmic justice. It's June 1972, and the Pennsylvania State Police have some questions concerning a skeleton found at the bottom of an old well in the ramshackle Chicken Hill section of Pottstown that’s been marked for redevelopment. But Hurricane Agnes intervenes by washing away the skeleton and all other physical evidence of a series of extraordinary events that began more than 40 years earlier, when Jewish and African American citizens shared lives, hopes, and heartbreak in that same neighborhood. At the literal and figurative heart of these events is Chona Ludlow, the forbearing, compassionate Jewish proprietor of the novel’s eponymous grocery store, whose instinctive kindness and fairness toward the Black families of Chicken Hill exceed even that of her husband, Moshe, who, with Chona’s encouragement, desegregates his theater to allow his Black neighbors to fully enjoy acts like Chick Webb’s swing orchestra. Many local White Christians frown upon the easygoing relationship between Jews and Blacks, especially Doc Roberts, Pottstown’s leading physician, who marches every year in the local Ku Klux Klan parade. The ties binding the Ludlows to their Black neighbors become even stronger over the years, but that bond is tested most stringently and perilously when Chona helps Nate Timblin, a taciturn Black janitor at Moshe’s theater and the unofficial leader of his community, conceal and protect a young orphan named Dodo who lost his hearing in an explosion. He isn’t at all “feeble-minded,” but the government wants to put him in an institution promising little care and much abuse. The interlocking destinies of these and other characters make for tense, absorbing drama and, at times, warm, humane comedy. McBride’s well-established skill with narrative tactics may sometimes spill toward the melodramatic here. But as in McBride’s previous works, you barely notice such relatively minor contrivances because of the depth of characterizations and the pitch-perfect dialogue of his Black and Jewish characters. It’s possible to draw a clear, straight line from McBride’s breakthrough memoir, The Color of Water (1996), to the themes of this latest work. If it’s possible for America to have a poet laureate, why can’t James McBride be its storyteller-in-chief? Copyright © Kirkus Reviews, used with permission.