Read James McBride's 2023 novel
Why can't we all just get along?
Years ago, I was assigned to read the William Faulkner short story, "Red Leaves" about an Indian chief who wants to bury his black slave with him when he dies. The vital and very much alive slave vehemently disagrees with his owner's wish and escapes by running into the swamps.
In my youth and naiveté, I was astounded by the plot of "Red Leaves." I had the simplistic idea that it was only whites and blacks who couldn't get along. My notion changed when I discovered that NO groups got along! Race relations were a mess between lots of different groups, including Native Americans and African Americans - at least according to William Faulkner's short story.
A sense of déjà vu struck me when I read James McBride's novel, The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store. "Why can't we all just get along?" I thought as I read about the tensions and trials between different immigrant groups in Pottstown, Pennsylvania.
A mystery? A history? A slow-burn book about community?
It's 1972, and an old skeleton is discovered at the bottom of an abandoned well during a construction project. No identification exists, but the bones are found with a mezuzah, a belt buckle, and a necklace.
I read with interest, believing the book would focus on discovering who the skeleton at the bottom of the well was. Boy, was I wrong!
Soon, I was taken back to a different place and a different time and found myself in the 1920s in a community called Chicken Hill. I meet Moshe, a Romanian Jew, and Chona, an American-born Jew with one leg shorter than the other leg, who have taken over Chona's father's business, The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store.
Moshe is running a local theater and dance hall. Chona runs the grocery store, but she is so kind-hearted and generous to everyone around her that she offers her wares on credit to those who can't afford to pay. The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store isn't profitable because of Chona's willingness to help others. Luckily, Moshe's business brings in enough income to support them. He works hard and publicizes the events to draw crowds to watch the performances of bands and dance the night away.
Each of the businesses owned by Moshe and Chona serves as a gathering place for the entire community, with Moshe even making the bold move of booking bands that cater specifically to the black population, a cutting-edge approach in the 1920s.
One by one, I was introduced to the individuals living in Chicken Hill, each one with allusions to a backstory that created interest - and sometimes confusion - about the true personality of the character. The good, the bad, and the ugly exist in each group of people, and as in real life, they don't all get along with each other.
I met so many characters and got so entranced with the world of Chicken Hill that I forgot about the skeleton in the well.
Awareness and empathy
Dodo is a 12-year-old black child who lost his hearing when a stove in his home blew up. After Dodo's mother dies, he goes to live with his uncle Nate. Nate is respected - and feared man - in the black community and Moshe's right-hand man at the theatre. When the state decides that Dodo should be institutionalized, Nate asks Chona to help him shelter the boy. Good-hearted and childless, Chona, is happy to help, and she and Moshe bring Dodo in to live with them, using the neighbor's many children to hide Dodo in the backyard when necessary to avoid detection by the state.
Dodo is not stupid, merely deaf. Other people, however, are stupid. They believe that Dodo should be put into a home for orphans and disabled people. Chona shelters him, but the powerful doctor of the town comes into the grocery store and demands that Chona tell him where Dodo is. The doctor and Chona get into a heated argument. He then attacks her, causing her to have a seizure, Dodo tries to defend her. Running from the police officers who respond to the scuffle, Dodo jumps off the roof of the building, breaking several bones and losing consciousness. He is captured and sent to the Pennhurst State Hospital where there is little care and no treatment for its disabled patients.
For me, the greatest and most memorable aspect of the novel was Dodo's experience at Pennhurst State Hospital. He can't move because of his injuries, and his bed is situated next to a boy with cerebral palsy whom Dodo names "Monkey Pants" because of how the boy is twisted and diapered in his bed, grunting.
I am a compassionate person. I am sympathetic and kind and try to help or protect someone with disabilities. But until I read The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, I had never truly thought about what it must be like for someone with a good brain to be trapped inside a body that doesn't function. Monkey Pants' story will stay with me, an emotional legacy of reading this novel.
Eventually, Monkey Pants and Dodo develop a unique sign language that enables the two of them to communicate, each protecting the other from harm. In an ultimate act of friendship, Monkey Pants protects Dodo, the only friend he's ever had.
Whatever it takes...
Tension exists between the different ethnic groups of Chicken Hill, but so does righteousness. When Dodo is captured, the entire community uses their resources, their connections, and their debt to the ailing Chona to rescue Dodo.
It's hard not to think about the rights of the physically disabled while reading this book. Pennhurst Hospital is a horrible place where those who can't fight back are victimized. It becomes very clear that people like Monkey Pants and Dodo don't stand a chance against the twisted power of psychotic staff members like the very evil "Son of Man."
Happily, the people of Chicken Hill, in all their diversity and disagreements come together to get Dodo out of that hellhole, whatever it takes.
Not a fast, easy read...but a worthwhile, not-to-be-missed one, nonetheless
I won't tell you that I breezed through the book. I didn't. Frustration crept in as I got introduced to more people who seemed superfluous. I couldn't figure out how they were connected to Moshe and Chona, or why I needed to know about them at all. Why the heck did I need to know about the water system of Chicken Hill, I wondered.
But James McBride knew exactly what he was doing, weaving a web of actions, characters, relationships, and motivations in The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, a slow burn of a book that ultimately ties everything together.
McBride is talented, indeed. He is a noted American author, winner of The National Book Award for his novel, The Good Lord Bird in 2013, and author of The Color of Water, his memoir about his white mother which spent more than two years on the New York Times' bestseller list and has sold 2.1 million copies worldwide.
A book doesn't have to be an easy read to be worthwhile. The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store was not a fast or easy read but definitely worth my time.
What the critics say about The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store
“The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store” is a charming, smart, heart-blistering and heart-healing novel. Great love bursts through these pages via the friends and families that mobilize to protect Dodo, a child endangered by the structures he was born into and injured by. With this story, McBride brilliantly captures a rapidly changing country, as seen through the eyes of the recently arrived and the formerly enslaved people of Chicken Hill. He has reached back into our shared past when, by migration and violence, segregation and collision, America was still becoming America. And through this evocation, McBride offers us a thorough reminder: Against seemingly impossible odds, even in the midst of humanity’s most wicked designs, love, community and action can save us.
"McBride looks squarely at savage truths about race and prejudice, but he also insists on humor and hope. The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store is one of the best novels I've read this year. It pulls off the singular magic trick of being simultaneously flattening and uplifting."
James McBride's previous novel was Deacon King Kong, about people living in a Brooklyn Housing Project in 1969, and it has a similar theme as The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store. He described his belief:
I've always felt I defined my life, tried to dictate my life, by the fact that I believe we have more in common than we are different. At bottom, in this book and in this community, people generally love each other."
I don't know about you, but I'm happy to read books like The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store where - in spite of all our different abilities, backgrounds, and beliefs, we can still come together and love each other.
The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store reinforced my belief that people DO come together to fight for what's right. They do learn to communicate with each other. They do take care of each other and care about each other.
Remember the skeleton?
After watching a community filled with diverse characters from a previous time period coalesce to save an orphaned child, I almost forgot about that skeleton discovered fifty years after Moshe and Chona's lives.
The pieces of the past that James McBride has so carefully created throughout the novel fall into place in the end. The mystery of the newly discovered skeleton is solved, and I was left smiling, happy to have visited this very interesting place.
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