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"The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab

“The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store” takes place before and during the 1930’s Depression in Chicken Hill, a ramshackle neighborhood. The location is part of a company town in northeast Pennsylvania where Jewish immigrants and African Americans cling to the vision of equality in the United States.

Moshe Ludlow, an immigrant from Romania, is an aspiring producer of concerts there and is married to Chona, who walks with a pronounced limp, the after-effect of polio. Moshe has the radical ambition to open his All-American Dance Hall and Theater to Black Patrons.

Downtown businesses have an unwritten law that African Americans are forbidden in the stores unless they are working as janitors or maids. But Moshe pursues his dream, and as soon as the band he has hired begins to play, Moshe's new customers “frolicked and laughed, dancing as if they were birds enjoying flight for the first time.”

The success of his business venture draws aggressive opposition from the community’s racists and antisemites, but Moshe persists and his entertainment business grows fast. Because of his financial success, the Ludlows can move out of their cramped apartment above the old Heaven and Earth Grocery Store into a bigger place.

Even though Moshe moves on with his successful enterprises, Chona insists on staying in Chicken Hill and running the grocery store. Her determination to stay exasperates Moshe at first but her commitment to others eventually gains his admiration. “This area is poor. We are not,” Moshe maintains. “It is Negro. Which we are not. We are well to do!” Chona replies that they are staying with the store “Because we serve, you see?” “This is what we do. The Talmud says it. We must serve.”

Moshe acquiesces to his wife's “charity of mind” and they remain in Chicken Hill.

Her vision of Jews and Blacks getting along is severely tested in this engrossing and inspirational novel. There are funny episodes involving Chona’s irritating responses to the White power brokers; thrilling moments such as when she openly denounces the KKK; and dreadful incidents centered on the attempt by state officials to remove a 12-year-old deaf orphan from the community and place him in a special school known for its filthy physical conditions and its tyrannical administration.

James McBride is the son of a Jewish mother whose father was a rabbi, and a Black father who is a Christian pastor. The religious and ethnic dynamics of his early family life are clearly reflected in the novelist’s inspiring characterizations and points of view.

“The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store” is a superlatively written, lively, love-affirming novel whose central theme is bridging the rift between heaven and earth. It can be read as a counteroffensive to this moment in history when there seems to be no possibility of understanding and love among people of different ethnicities and religions.

About the Author: James McBride is the author of the New York Times best-selling “Deacon King Kong,” the National Book Award-winning “The Good Lord Bird” and numerous other novels. He is the recipient of a National Humanities Medal and an accomplished musician. McBride is also a distinguished writer in residence at New York University.

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