The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride

This book has been all over the ‘best of . . .’ lists these last few weeks and has been longlisted and shortlisted and won an award as I write. There may be more to come.

The story opens with a body being found in a well with an investigation about to happen until Hurricane Agnes flew through and washed everything away. The rest of the book then goes on to explain how the body got there. In detail. It all takes place in a small community made up of mostly Black and Jewish people who lived up on Chicken Hill but were looked down on by most. A community is always made out of characters and in this story, we get the backstory of a lot of the characters but central are Chona and Moshe who run not just the grocery store but also a couple of theatres which book live music. Chona is a woman with a sense of place, she doesn’t want to move away when they make more money, and continues to provide food to people when they have no money. It makes her a treasure of the community.

She then takes in a boy, Dodo, to hide him from the state. He is twelve years old and is deaf and has lost both his parents. The state gets to hear about they boy and wants to find him and put him in a home that has a dreadful reputation and eventually they find him with no thanks to the local doctor who leads the Ku Klux Klan marches and who has always had a ‘thing’ for Chona. The story then becomes an adventure in ways to get Dodo out of the institution and away and in order to do that people are called upon in all sorts of different ways depending on their skills and who they know.

As McBride makes clear at the end of this book, it is about equality and about what America is. It is not about some long-ago time when everyone was white and nobody had any disabilities. When it’s the doctor’s turn to be in the spotlight of the story, McBride writes,

He’d seen his youth vanish, his town crumble, the blood of its proud white fathers diluted by invaders: Jews, Italians, even niggers who wandered Chicken Hill selling ice cream and shoes to one another while decent white people fought off the Jewish merchants and Italian immigrants who seemed to be buying everything. Not to mention the Mennonites in town with their horses and buggies. And the Irish at the fire company. And the Greeks mumbling their business at diners. And the Italians kicking ass at the dairy. And the niggers from the Hill wanting factory jobs instead of being maids and janitors like they were supposed to.


His question was, ‘Where was America in all of this?’

And of course the answer, this is America and these people are Americans, is not what he was looking for.

Even Moshe gets trapped in what used to be and finds it difficult to move forward with the changing society. He is told that ‘Swing’ music is not where it is at now and he replies that people only seem to want Spanish music. The reply comes back,

To you, they’re Spanish. To me, they’re Puerto Rican, Dominican, Panamanian, Cuban, Ecuadorian, Mexican, Africano, Afro-Cubano. That’s America, mijo. You’ve got to know your people, Moshe.


So this idea that there are times when we can all be lumped together as a homogenous group such as when we are called a community and asked to help someone, and others when we are distinctly different but with common threads.

These listing sentences of what people and communities are made up of are used throughout the book to demonstrate that we are more than one thing.

Nobody outside of Pottsdown had ever heard of Antes, of course, in part because he wrote trumpet sonatas that nobody played, and in part because the John Antes Historical Society’s Cornet Marching band, which was composed of forty-five souls – numbskulls, pig farmers, heavy smokers, bums, drunks, cheerleaders, tomboys, bored college students, and any other white American in Montgomery County who could purse their lips tight enough to blast a noise through a trumpet – sounded like a cross between a crank engine trying to start on a cold October morning and a dying African silverback gorilla howling out its last. It was all a nod to Antes, the great composer, husband, father, revolutionary, statesman, plunderer, iron maker, wife beater, cornetist, Indian grave rober, and all-round great American who served as president of Pottsdown borough and as a colonel under the great George Washington himself – and still found time to write marching band sonatas for trumpet – imagine that.


Two enormous, listing sentences that detail the variety of people we can all be.

I struggle with fitting the title to the story. Perhaps it comes from that phrase where we ‘move heaven and earth’ to do something difficult as in Chona’s response to the people she served in the shop or the way the community worked together to rescue Dodo. Perhaps Pottsdown is heaven on earth, it is America with all of its diversity, poverty, wealth and difficulty in keeping up with change. And the skeleton at the very beginning of the book may well be representative of all the skeletons in America’s cupboard with regards to race and inequality for some of its people.

I liked the message and the way it is told but I wasn’t grabbed by the book. It felt a little too long about two thirds of the way through having digressed in lots of different ways from the opening and by that time I just wanted to know what had happened.

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