The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store

ONE OF BARACK OBAMA’S FAVORITE BOOKS OF 2023

Joumana Khatib at The New York Times: Since its release last summer, James McBride’s latest novel, “The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store,” has been a runaway success. It’s a book I’ve heard many of you say you loved (if you’re one of these readers, don’t miss a book club podcast we recorded about the novel), and it was greeted with plenty of critical acclaim, too.

And now the novel has reached a new milestone: It’s sold over a million copies. Most books are lucky to sell a small fraction of that.

My colleague Elizabeth Harris spoke with McBride about his ambivalent feelings toward his success. “You’ve been David all your life, and you become Goliath,” he said. “Your life changes when you become Goliath.”

James McBride is an American writer and musician. His novel The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store (released in 2023) tells the story of Black and Jewish residents of the Chicken Hill neighborhood of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, in the 1920s and ’30s. The novel is about small-town secrets and the people who keep them. It depicts an emblematic neighborhood in an ever-changing America, as various groups gravitate to the “American dream,” learn to live together, forge friendships, and negotiate both the commonality and differences of the American melting pot.

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.

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