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  • Writer's pictureJudith D Collins

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store

Narrator: Dominic Hoffman

Penguin Audio

ISBN: 9780593422946

Publisher: PENGUIN GROUP Riverhead

Publication Date: 08/08/2023

Format: Other

My Rating: 5 Stars +

From James McBride, author of the bestselling Oprah’s Book Club pick Deacon King Kong and the National Book Award–winning The Good Lord Bird, a novel about small-town secrets and the people who keep them

In 1972, when workers in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, were digging the foundations for a new development, the last thing they expected to find was a skeleton at the bottom of a well.

Who the skeleton was and how it got there were two of the long-held secrets kept by the residents of Chicken Hill, the dilapidated neighborhood where immigrant Jews and African Americans lived side by side and shared ambitions and sorrows. Chicken Hill was where Moshe and Chona Ludlow lived when Moshe integrated his theater and where Chona ran the Heaven & Earth Grocery Store. When the state came looking for a deaf boy to institutionalize him, it was Chona and Nate Timblin, the Black janitor at Moshe’s theater and the unofficial leader of the Black community on Chicken Hill, who worked together to keep the boy safe.

As these characters’ stories overlap and deepen, it becomes clear how much the people who live on the margins of white, Christian America struggle and what they must do to survive. When the truth is finally revealed about what happened on Chicken Hill and the part the town’s white establishment played in it, McBride shows us that even in dark times, it is love and community—heaven and earth—that sustain us.

Bringing his masterly storytelling skills and his deep faith in humanity to The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, James McBride has written a novel as compassionate as Deacon King Kong and as inventive as The Good Lord Bird.

My Review

Master storyteller James McBride returns following Deacon King Kong(2020) with a tour de force—THE HEAVEN AND EARTH GROCERY STORE —a mesmerizing heart-rendering story of community, equality, and small-town secrets.

A group of poor Black, Jewish, and Italian dreamers band together to rescue an orphaned deaf Black boy from a state institution while fending off interference from the town’s bigoted white leaders in this captivating story with vivid characters that jump off the page and linger long after the book ends.

Taking place before and during the Depression in a ramshackle working-class Pottstown, Pennsylvania neighborhood called Chicken Hill, where Jewish immigrants, Italians, and African Americans dream of equality in the US. To some, perhaps, they may be called misfits.

In June 1972, a skeleton was found at the bottom of an old well in the rundown section of Chicken Hill Pottstown scheduled for redevelopment. Hurricane Agnes washes away the skeleton and other evidence that began more than 40 years earlier when Jewish and African American citizens shared hopes for this neighborhood.

In 1925, Moshe Ludlow owned the town’s first integrated dance hall and theater with his wife, Chona, a beautiful woman undeterred by her polio-related disability and driven by her deep Jewish faith. Chona also runs the Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, extending kindness and indefinite credit to her Jewish and Black customers.

When Nate and Addie Tamblin (Black), friends and employees of the Ludlows, 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.

The racist white Christians (per se) begin to interfere, claiming to be worried about Dodo’s welfare. A tragedy brings the community together for justice, leading to the dead body being discovered years later.

African Americans were forbidden within downtown businesses except as janitors and maids. So what about opening the theatre to the Blacks so they can enjoy it? I loved the jazz and lively music! It is the kindness and compassion of Ludlow toward the Black families of Chicken Hill, allowing them in the theatre to enjoy the swing orchestra, the jazz music, and dance.

Later the Ludlow's could afford to move out of the neighborhood, but Chona is insistent they remain in Chicken Hill and run the grocery store. Chona is tenacious and devoted to the Blacks and Jews and her community. I LOVED CHONA! She was a fire-cracker!

When the state came looking for a deaf boy to institutionalize him, Chona and Nate Timblin, the Black janitor at Moshe’s theater and the unofficial leader of the Black community on Chicken Hill, worked together to keep the boy safe.

Many white Christians frowned upon the relationship between the Jews and Blacks, especially Doc Roberts, Pottstown’s leading physician, who marches yearly in the local Ku Klux Klan parade.

Those ties and bonds are tested Chona helps conceal and protect Dodo. The government called him feeble-minded even though he was intelligent and wanted to lock him away in an institution (which would have been abusive)—The Pennhurst State Hospital for the Insane and Feeble-Minded.

The 12-year-old orphan, Dodo, lost his hearing and mother after a kitchen stove exploded. Chona, who is childless, desperately wants to help hide the Black boy and answer to her prayers. No one expects the police to look for a Black child in a Jewish family's home.

As the stories collide, it becomes clear how much the people who live on the margins of white, Christian America struggle and what they must do to survive.

THE HEAVEN AND EARTH GROCERY STORE is a moving portrayal of America's unfair treatment of Black and Jewish citizens and how the two unite as a community for justice and provide a haven.

When the truth is revealed about what happened on Chicken Hill and the part the town’s white establishment played, the author demonstrates that even in dark times, love and community—heaven and earth—sustain us.

Rich in character, place, and time—from humor, intensity, and emotion, THE HEAVEN AND EARTH GROCERY STORE is magical and meaningful, with pitch-perfect dialogue and lively narrative that keeps you glued to the pages.

A vibrant eye-opening must-read with well-developed larger-than-life eccentric, memorable characters you care about and root for. Insightful, endearing, and thought-provoking!

McBride states in his acknowledgments the novel was inspired by a camp for disabled children where he worked as a counselor when he was in college. The novel is dedicated to Sy Friend, the retired director of a camp for disabled children in Pennsylvania.

Many who read The Color of Water: A Black Man's Tribute to His White Mother McBride’s memoir will notice some of the themes in his latest hauntingly beautiful novel. Highly entertaining! McBride is a gifted writer; you will quickly grab his backlist after reading.

I look forward to the audiobook narrated by a favorite, Dominic Hoffman!

@JudithDCollins | #JDCMustReadBooks

My Rating: 5 Stars ++

Pub Date: Aug 8, 2023


Named a Must-Read for the Summer

The New York Times • The Washington Post • The Boston Globe • Time • AARP • Town & Country • St. Louis Post-Dispatch

“We all need—we all deserve—this vibrant, love-affirming novel that bounds over any difference that claims to separate us.”

—Ron Charles, The Washington Post

I keep thinking every time I read one of his books, ‘That’s his best book.’ No. THIS is his best book.”

—Ann Patchett

“An entertaining, meaningful story about the community formed when people take advantage of America's opportunities for cross-cultural connection.”

—Minneapolis Star Tribune

"Sharp and nimble and warm as a wool hat, James McBride’s prose seems to transcend all earthly concerns, allowing him to write with compassion, humor and authority."

—The Philadelphia Inquirer

“A stunning page-turner . . . and an utterly captivating, compassionate story.”

—Real Simple

“A story of community, care, and the lengths to which we'll go for justice, McBride's tale is a wondrous ode to the strength of humanity in a small town.”

—Time Magazine

“McBride’s pages burst with life. . . . This endlessly rich saga highlights the different ways in which people look out for one another.”

—Publishers Weekly (STARRED REVIEW)

“The interlocking destinies of [McBride’s] characters make for tense, absorbing drama and, at times, warm, humane comedy. . . . If it’s possible for America to have a poet laureate, why can’t James McBride be its storyteller-in-chief?”

—Kirkus Reviews (STARRED REVIEW)

“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.”


“A compelling novel, compellingly written, and not to be missed . . . 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. . . . [He] ends the novel with so much poignancy and heartfelt sympathy for his characters that readers will be hard-pressed not to be moved.”

—Library Journal (STARRED REVIEW)

“When it comes to James McBride, you can always be sure that you’re in for a wild and rewarding read. . . . Like The Good Lord Bird and Deacon King Kong, McBride brings a wealth of wit and charm to every page of this novel, as well as a refreshing sense of humanity and optimism for this makeshift community.”

—Chicago Review of Books

“McBride appears incapable of writing a book that’s not a massive success.”

—The Millions


—Town & Country

“[McBride is] a masterful storyteller who always brings a deep well of humanity and humor to his exuberant, expansive tales.”


An Amazon Best Book of August 2023: In Deacon King Kong, James McBride spun a story of a Brooklyn neighborhood filled with beguiling and booze-filled characters that showed just how vital communities can be—and he’s done it again with The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store. Except this time, we’re in Chicken Hill, a small town in Pennsylvania, where Black, Jewish, and European immigrants, rich and poor, old and young, collide—defending, fighting, entertaining, feeding, and sheltering one another. This cacophonous melody of characters with all of their schemes and dreams reveal how home is where you make it—and how all of these “outsiders” are anything but. With spunky detail, McBride masterfully makes you feel like you’re part of the neighborhood, that these are your neighbors, your friends, and enemies, drawing you in, so that you, too, know the secrets they keep, the grudges they hold, and kindness they offer. Chock full of the social, racial, and ethnic politics of a small town, The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store is another irresistible stand-out from McBride.

—Al Woodworth, Amazon Editor

About the Author

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 and will be a Showtime limited series in fall 2020 starring Ethan Hawke.

McBride has been a staff writer for The Boston Globe, People Magazine, and The Washington Post, and his work has appeared in Essence, Rolling Stone, and The New York Times. His 2007 National Geographic story “Hip Hop Planet” is considered an important examination of African American music and culture.

A noted musician and composer, McBride has toured as a saxophonist sideman with jazz legend Jimmy Scott, among other musicians. He has written songs for Anita Baker, Grover Washington Jr., Pura Fé, Gary Burton, and even for the PBS television character “Barney.” (He did not write the “I Love You” song for Barney, but he wishes he did.) He received the Stephen Sondheim Award and the Richard Rodgers Foundation Horizon Award for his musical Bobos, co-written with playwright Ed Shockley. His 2003 Riffin’ and Pontificatin’ musical tour was filmed for a nationally televised Comcast documentary. He has been featured on national radio and television in North America, Europe, Australia, and New Zealand. He often does his public readings accompanied by a band.

In addition to being an author and a musician, McBride has other attributes. He admits to being the worst dancer in the history of African Americana, bar none (he claims he should be legally barred from dancing at any event he attends). And when he takes off his hat, fleas fly out. Little things, little talents.

A native New Yorker and a graduate of New York City public schools, McBride studied composition at the Oberlin Conservatory of Music in Ohio and received his master’s degree at the Graduate School of Journalism at Columbia University. In 2015, he was awarded the National Humanities Medal by President Obama “for humanizing the complexities of discussing race in America.” He holds several honorary doctorates and is currently a Distinguished Writer in Residence at New York University. WEBSITE







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