Cover image of "The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store," a novel about Jews and African Americans together

James McBride won the National Book Award for Fiction in 2013 for The Good Lord Bird. It’s an often-hilarious novel about the abolitionist John Brown‘s ill-conceived attack on the federal arsenal at Harper’s Ferry, Virginia. That act is often cited as a triggering event for the Civil War two years later. In his newest novel, The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, McBride journeys three-quarters of a century forward into the depths of the Great Depression to a place in eastern Pennsylvania called Pottstown. McBride spins a tale of the Jews and African Americans living together there. They share the disdain and discrimination of the white town fathers whose forebears immigrated before them. As the reviewer for the New York Times notes, it’s “a murder mystery locked inside a Great American Novel.”

Estimated reading time: 5 minutes

Three unforgettable principal characters

In 1972, construction workers in Pottstown stumble upon a skeleton buried in an old well. Somebody murdered the man in times past. But we’ll learn who he was and how he died only at the conclusion of the long, convoluted tale McBride tells about events that transpire in the town in 1936. Along the way, we’ll meet the African Americans and Jews whose modest homes lie on Chicken Hill, which looms above Pottstown’s more affluent, low-lying neighborhoods. And we’ll feel ourselves growing close to three of them. Chona Ludlow, who runs the grocery store of the title. Her husband Moshe. And Nate Timblin, the Black janitor at Moshe’s theater and dance hall. These three, unforgettable characters all, will hold our attention throughout until we learn who the murdered man was and the comical story of how he died.

The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride (2023) 400 pages ★★★★★

Photo of man sleeping in a chair outside his home in eastern Pennsylvania, where this novel about Jews and African Americans together is set
This photo by the celebrated photographer Dorothea Lange shows an all-too-typical home in a poor neighborhood in eastern Pennsylvania, where this novel is set. Image: Dorothea Lange / Yale – Only in Your State

A colorful cast of comic characters

Unlike her husband, Moshe, a Romanian Jewish immigrant, Chona is an American. When he opens the Heaven and Earth Grocery Store below their small apartment to give her something to do, she takes it upon herself to make it Chicken Hill’s welfare center. The store consistently loses money because Chona lets her Negro customers buy on credit—and then never collects from them. Everybody loves Chona, and Moshe has adored her since the moment he first saw her.

Unfortunately, the losses at the store make it difficult for him to keep their heads above water financially. He runs a small theater and dance hall that’s not doing well. Until he learns from Nate about a famous Negro bandleader and invites him to integrate the place. This begins a time of prosperity in his life, as one after another of the era’s top African American performers pack the place. Moshe earns enough to open a second theater. As McBride exults, “He kept his two theaters filled with lively Yiddish bands, Jewish theater troupes, and romping, stomping black jazz bands.”

Jews and African Americans face discrimination together

But there are dark clouds on the horizon. The shul (synagogue) where Moshe and Chona worship is running out of water. The crooked head of the town council, who runs a dairy located above Chicken Hill, has redirected the water pipes supplying the shul to his own property. And Doc Roberts, the town’s only doctor, is furious with Chona. She wrote a letter to the local newspaper pointing out that she recognized him in his white hood at the head of the annual Ku Klux Klan parade. (Doc Roberts limps.) And these two nasty characters will cause Chona and Moshe no end of trouble. Serious trouble. Only Moshe’s older and richer cousin Isaac from Philadelphia—together with Nate Timblin—can solve their problems and the shul‘s.

Is The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store a Great American Novel? Maybe. Whatever that means. All I know is that it’s a great story and a pleasure to read. And I imagine McBride’s engaging characters will linger in my mind for a long time to come.

About the author

Photo of James McBride, author of this novel about Jews and African Americans together
James McBride. Image: Chia Messina/Courtesy of Riverhead via NPR

James McBride‘s biography on his author website reads in part as follows: “James McBride is an award-winning author, musician, and screenwriter. His landmark memoir, The Color of Water, published in 1996, has sold millions of copies and spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list. Considered an American classic, it is read in schools and universities across the United States.

“His debut novel, Miracle at St. Anna, was turned into a 2008 film by Oscar-winning writer and director Spike Lee, with a script written by McBride.

“His 2013 novel, The Good Lord Bird, about American abolitionist John Brown, won the National Book Award for Fiction.”

McBride was born in 1957 to an African American preacher and a Jewish immigrant from Poland. She converted to Christianity, but according to Jewish law McBride is a Jew nonetheless. And he is proud of his Jewish history, as he has written.

McBride is a graduate of Oberlin College with a degree in musical composition and a master’s from the Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

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