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Book Review :: The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride

Review by Kevin Brown

The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, James McBride’s latest novel, centers around a small community in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, in the early and middle twentieth century. The neighborhood of Chicken Hill is changing, first from a largely Jewish area to a primarily African American one, but then even that dichotomy breaks down with a significant influx of Eastern European Jews who don’t always see the world the same way the older immigrant community does.

Moshe bridges the original divide, as he owns a theatre that once hosted vaudeville acts, but then transitioned to Black bands as demand grew. His primary employee is Nate, a Black man, who helps Moshe work across the racial divide. However, the main impetus for Moshe’s doing so is his wife, Chona, who runs the titular grocery store. She encourages (forces, really) Moshe to leave the grocery store in the neighborhood even as its demographics change, and she becomes the face of welcome to anyone who walks in.

She even makes Moshe hide Dodo, Nate and Addie’s deaf nephew, when the state comes to take him away, a decision that will lead to much of the conflict in the novel. However, Chona stands for the heaven and earth of the store, as she attempts to live out the love of God, the will of God, on earth, as it is in heaven, a message of inclusivity needed now as much as ever.

The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride. Riverhead Books, August 2023.

Reviewer bio: Kevin Brown has published three books of poetry: Liturgical Calendar: Poems (Wipf and Stock); A Lexicon of Lost Words (winner of the Violet Reed Haas Prize for Poetry, Snake Nation Press); and Exit Lines (Plain View Press). He also has a memoir, Another Way: Finding Faith, Then Finding It Again, and a book of scholarship, They Love to Tell the Stories: Five Contemporary Novelists Take on the Gospels. Twitter @kevinbrownwrite

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