The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store is the title of the best book I have read in a very long time.
Written by James McBride, acclaimed author of The Color of Water, The Good Lord Bird, and Deacon King Kong (oh my gosh, what a deacon!), The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store is a rollicking, smart, truth-telling, heart-rending, and heart-healing novel set in Chicken Hill, a mixed-race neighborhood in Pottstown, PA, in the 1930s.
Forty years ago, when McBride was in college, he worked at The Variety Club Camp for Handicapped Children in Worcester, PA, directed by a man named Sy Friend, to whom this book is dedicated. ‘Sy’s lessons of inclusivity, love, and acceptance—delivered not with condescending kindness but with deeds that showed the recipients the path to true equality—eventually morphed into this novel,’ McBride writes in the acknowledgments.
His book is the story of a Jewish couple, Moshe and Chona Ludlow, who live above the Heaven and Earth Grocery Store in Chicken Hill. Moshe is a Romanian-born theatre owner who integrated the town’s first dance hall. Chona, crippled from polio, with one leg shorter than the other requiring her to wear a boot with a sole four inches thick, runs the sole Jewish grocery store in Chicken Hill, a gathering place for the whole neighborhood.
Chona, beautiful and spirited, reads every book she can get her hands on, subscribes to Jewish newspapers, knows more Hebrew than any Jewish woman in town, and can recite the Talmud better than most men in the shul.
As his theatre business thrives, Moshe wants to move from Chicken Hill down into the more prosperous area in Pottstown. Chona will have none of it. “I like it here. I grew up in this house; the postman knows where I live.”
Frustrated, Moshe shouts, “Down the hill is America!”
Chona is adamant: America is here!”
“But this area is poor, which we are not. It is Negro, which we are not. We are doing well!” Moshe tells her.
“Because we serve, you see? That is what we do. The Talmud says it. We must serve.”
They stay in Chicken Hill.
The page-turning plot quickly unfurls after this, with unforgettable characters like Fatty, Big Soap, Nate, Addie, Paper, Norm Skrupskelis the shoemaker, Doc Roberts the unrepentant villain, and an elegant retired laundress named Miggy Fludd, who has become a typing fortune teller.
When Miggy’s friend Paper asks, ‘What you giving ‘em in those typed cards, Miggy?’ Her answer is, ‘Hope, honey.’
“Ain’t that what church is for?” Paper asks.
McBride leaves that question unanswered, perhaps because he knows that church is not the only way hope is given or received. As this unforgettable book ends, and families and friends mobilize to protect the deaf child Dodo, McBride reminds us that love, community, and action can bring hope in the deepest darkness.