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The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store
(Review, Synopsis & Summary)

By James McBride



Book review and synopsis for The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride, a vibrant, compassionate and often humorous story about small-town secrets and a community of people.

Synopsis

James McBride's The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store opens with the discovery of a skeleton in a well in a small town. This introduction to the Chicken Hill area of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, sets up a sense of mystery as the narrative jumps back nearly 50 years to explore the town, its secrets and its people.

Chicken Hill is a vibrant community of immigrants, Jewish and black people, resulting in a mix of characters with intertwined lives and shared histories. This novel tells their stories with affection, humor, and occasionally some level of vexation with the world when a deaf boy in town is left without a mother and the state looks to take him into their custody.

It's a story about people who are struggling and their ambitions, successes and disappointments. In this compassionate, life-affirming and often funny novel, McBride explores what it means to be in a community and to live in the margins of "white" American.

(The Full Plot Summary is also available, below)

Full Plot Summary

Chapter-by-Chapter Summary & Analysis
See the Chapter-by-Chapter Summary & Analysis of The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store
Quick Plot Summary

The two-paragraph version of this is: In Parts I and II, a skeleton is discovered in a well on Chicken Hill, and a old Jewish man, Malachi, is questioned. The narrative jumps back 47 years to explain how Malachi came to know Moshe, a Jewish theater owner. Moshe and his wife Chona (who runs the unprofitable but community staple Heaven & Earth Grocery) help their friend Nate, a black man, to hide his nephew, Dodo. Dodo is a deaf boy whose mother has died, and the state wants to admit him to Pennhurst, a mental asylum, because of his disability. Things go as planned until the town's white physician (a KKK member) attempts to rape Chona, and Dodo intervenes. Dodo is injured and taken into custody. Chona suffers a seizure during the attack and passes away.

In Part III, the various people of Chicken Hill band together to form a plan to bust Dodo out of the asylum. The plan involves recruiting a man who delivers eggs to Pennhurst to help Nate bring Dodo out and for them to traverse the tunnels around Pennhurst to reach the railroad. However, one of the attendants in Dodo's ward is twisted, evil man who calls himself Son of God and who abuses boys. When the plan goes awry, Nate ends up killing Son of God. Meanwhile, Doc falls into an uncovered manhole (the skeleton at the beginning of the story who was found with a necklace that was once a gift for Malachi, but given to Chona and stolen by Doc when he assaulted her). Nate and Dodo escape to a farm in South Carolina and his wife Addie later joins them. Moshe starts a camp for disabled children, in remembrance of his wife who was disabled. The book closes by explaining how Dodo grows up (as Nate Love II) and eventually passes away surrounded by his loving children and grandchildren.

Part I opens in 1972 with a old Jewish man, Malachi, being questioned about a skeleton that was found in a well in the Chicken Hill area of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, along with items linking it to him. The next day, a storm blows through the area destroying everything around including the well, the skeleton and any possible evidence, and Malachi leaves town.

The narrative then jumps back to 47 years ago and introduces Moshe Ludlow, a young, poor Jewish man who owns a small dance hall and theater in the area. Moshe is on the verge of losing everything when he meets Chona, the daughter of a rabbi who owns the Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, the only Jewish grocery in the area. She is intelligent and lovely, but has a lame leg due to polio. Chona continues to have occasional tremors and seizures because of it. They marry, and in the years after, Moshe grows prosperous. Despite not needing to work, Chona chooses to keep running the store. When the other Jewish families leave Chicken Hill which is a poor, largely black area, Moshe wants to leave and move to a nicer place, but Chona insists on staying here with her community.

12 years into their marriage, Chona falls ill and continues to worsen. One day, Malachi appears, having recently purchased a bakery in town. He needs flour and offers Moshe a loaf of Challah. Malachi remembers Moshe from a great musical event at the theater twelve years ago, the one where Moshe's fortunes started turning around. Moshe remembers Malachi as a fantastic dancer, and Malachi continues bringing by Challah. Suddenly, Chona's health begins to improve, and Moshe attributes it to some type of magic Malachi seems to bring wherever he goes. Malachi is unskilled as a baker though and business suffers. He asks Moshe to assist him in selling the business and leaves town.

Meanwhile, Nate and Addie Timlin are close friends and employees of Moshe and Chona, as well as highly respected members of the black community in Pottstown. When Addie's sister suddenly passes away, the government takes an interest in taking her deaf 12-year-old boy Dodo into custody to send him to a "special school", the Pennhurst School. Pennhurst is meant for the mentally unwell and is no place for the boy. Nate asks Moshe for help in hiding Dodo, and Moshe and Chona take him in. They lie to the government officials saying that Dodo has left the state.

Bernice Davis is Chona's neighbor who she was once close friends with, but they have not spoken in many years. Chona's father founded the Ahavat Achim synagogue on Chicken Hill, and Bernice's father was the one who built it. The two men were close friends. Bernice is a black woman with many children. Chona asks her for help with Dodo, and Bernice quickly offers to let Chona cut a hole in her fence so Dodo can come hide among her kids in case anyone comes snooping around.

The state continues to look for the boy, and people suspect that someone must've told them that Dodo is still here. Doc Roberts is the town's physician and is a member of the KKK. He's asked to help locate the boy and check him out. Like Chona, Doc also had polio as a child, resulting in an unsteady gait, and he once had an interest in Chona when they were in high school. He was indignant at being rejected by a "Jewess" at the time, and he is curious how Chona is doing. He shows up at the grocery to talk to Chona based on rumors that she's harboring the boy.

As they talk, Chona argues with him about his KKK activities and suddenly she has a seizure. Instead of helping her, Doc takes advantage of her vulnerable state to sexually assault her, and Dodo tries to stop him. Chona has an even more serious seizure. When the situation is under control, Doc brings by two policemen to detain Dodo. Dodo flees, but is injured and caught.

In Part II, Dodo awakes at the Pennhurst hospital ward, and Chona is in the Reading hospital in a coma. Meanwhile, rumors fly around town about what happened. Nate is furious about what has happened to his nephew, and he pieces together that Revered Ed Spriggs must've been the one to leak to the men from the state that they were hiding Dodo. (Bernice would not have talked about hiding Dodo, but she would've told the Reverend, and Nate saw them arguing.) His wife Addie fears what he will do. Meanwhile, people are also hearing about Doc Roberts sexually assaulting Chona instead of helping her. A week after the assault, Chona passes away.

In Part III, plans begin to form around getting Dodo out of Pennhurst. Moshe's successful cousin Isaac offers to hire a lawyer to help, but Nate feels strongly that the law is whatever the "white man" says it is and that they need to take matters into their own hands.

In Pennhurst, Dodo befriends a boy with cerebral palsy that he nicknames Monkey Pants. There is an evil and twisted attendant there named Son of Man who abuses young boys. Monkey Pants manages to prevent Dodo from being raped by Son of Man, though the episode causes Monkey Pants to have a seizure and he dies.

Meanwhile, there has been an ongoing issue at the synagogue regarding their water supply. The water supply in town is controlled by the Plitzka family, and Gus Plitzka is the head councilman. Chona previously had run-ins with him. Despite the Plitzka's contract to supply the town with water, they refuse to run pipes to the synagogue.

Paper, a beautiful woman who supplies everyone with gossip, enlists her old coworker Miggy to help bust Dodo out. Miggy agrees to put Nate in touch with Bullis who has a job delivering eggs from the nearby farm to the various buildings around Pennhurst. The plan is to have Bullis help get Dodo out of the ward in his cart and then use the tunnels around Pennhurst to get them to the railroad.

Memorial Day weekend in 1936, the water issue is fixed by going in the night to illegally place pipes to connect the synagogue to the city water supply. A manhole is temporarily left uncovered and Doc falls in (he has on him a necklace Moshe once made for Malachi, but was given to Chona instead and stolen by Doc when he assaulted her). Meanwhile, Nate breaks Dodo out and kills Son of Man in the process.

The book end by explaining that Nate and Dodo end up settling down at a farm in South Carolina, and Addie eventually joins them. Dodo takes the name Nate Love II and has kids and grandkids of his own. When he dies, he is surrounded by his family and remembers Chona and thanks Monkey Pants.

For more detail, see the full Chapter-by-Chapter Summary.

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Book Review

In The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, McBride tells a compassionate and humorous story about community and its people. The book was selected as one of Barack Obama’s favorite books of 2023, it’s been popular among various book clubs and the reviews have been fantastic.

I also previously read Deacon King Kong, also by James McBride, and thought it was really good, so I’ve been wanting to get to this novel as well. Quite frankly, I knew I would like it, and of course I did.

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store is a good book to just sit with for a while. I took a lot of breaks reading this book, just because the narratives in it are worth taking the time to mull over. In this intertwined community of immigrants, Jewish and Black people, the book takes the time to introduce you to each one as it pulls you through the main storyline of the novel involving a young deaf boy and a skeleton that’s discovered many years later.

Getting lost in this community of people and their backstories and their struggles is a delight. It entertained me, it made me laugh, it made me angry sometimes and it made me cry a couple of times. Everything you want, basically.

McBride likes to jump around a little in the way he tells his stories, which takes a little bit to get used to and settle down in, but it’s well worth making the effort. There’s a lot of humor and love in this life-affirming yet thoughtful and frequently quite biting story.

The narrative threads in this story all get resolved though they don’t fit together quite as cleverly as one might hope, but I enjoyed the story enough that it wasn’t something that really bothered me.

"Agudas Achim", a Jewish synagogue on Chicken Hill circa 1893

“Agudas Achim”, a Jewish synagogue on Chicken Hill circa 1893

Read it or Skip it?

This review is pretty short, mostly because I don’t have all that much to say other than that it’s a really good book and worth taking some time to read if it interests you at all. This is definitely a work of literary fiction, but isn’t a hard read once you get used to the writing style.

I think most people who read literary fiction would enjoy this, and it would make for a really great book club pick and provide more than enough fodder to talk about.

See The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store on Amazon.

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store Audiobook Review

Narrator: Dominic Hoffman
Length: 12 hours 21 minutes

The audiobook is well done, but I started listening to this on audiobook but eventually switched to reading it instead.

I found that with the audiobook I had to stop it at times since there were parts that I needed to re-read in order to really grasp the details of the story. There’s a lot going on in the book and jumping around in time, so it can be easy to get lost from time to time. So, nothing wrong with the audiobook, but unless you are paying really close attention, I found it was easier to follow the story when I was reading it and could just turn back a page when needed.

Hear a sample of The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store audiobook on Libro.fm.

Discussion Questions

  1. Why do you think James McBride titled the book The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store?
  2. Which character in this book resonated with you the most? What character do you wish we got to know more about?
  3. How do you think Isaac and Moshe’s past impacted their personality? What about Nate?
  4. Why do you think Fatty skips Chona’s funeral? Why do you think Bernice decides to go?
  5. What do you think about Nate’s decision to take matters into his own hands instead of taking Isaac up on his offer of hiring a lawyer?
  6. Do you think justice was served in this book?
  7. What did you think was the funniest moment in the book?
  8. Where you satisfied with the ending of the book? What about it do you like or not like?

Book Excerpt

Read the first pages of The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store



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