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James McBride's 'Heaven & Earth' is an all-American mix of prejudice and hope

Penguin Random House

I don't often begin reviews talking about the very last pages of a book, but an uncommon novel calls for an uncommon approach. In the Acknowledgements at the end of his new novel, The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, James McBride cites as his inspiration a camp outside Philadelphia where he worked every summer as a college student during the 1970s. At the time, it was called The Variety Club Camp for Handicapped Children.

The remarkable camp director, McBride says, taught him lifetime lessons about "inclusivity, love and acceptance" — all without pontificating. McBride tried and failed for years to write about that camp; eventually it "morphed" into a novel about Pottstown, Pa., and a historically Black and immigrant Jewish neighborhood called "Chicken Hill."

In a tip of the hat to that inspirational camp, characters with disabilities also play crucial roles in McBride's story. If you think this novel is beginning to sound too nice, too pat, you don't know McBride's writing. He crowds the chaos of the world into his sentences.

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store opens in 1972, when workers clearing a lot for a new townhouse development in Pottstown discover a skeleton at the bottom of a well, along with a mezuzah, a small case that often hangs on the doorframes of Jewish homes. The police question the one elderly Jewish man still living at the site of the old synagogue on Chicken Hill, but before the investigation intensifies, an Act of God intervenes: Hurricane Agnes hits the Northeast, washing away the crime scene.

McBride's storyline then bends backwards to 1925, when a Jewish theater manager named Moshe Ludlow and his wife, Chona, are living above the Heaven & Earth Grocery Store which she runs. Moshe's business is prospering — especially after he branches out from klezmer music and begins booking Black performers like the real-life swing drummer Chick Webb.

Since immigrant Jews are now moving off Chicken Hill into the center of town, Moshe figures he and Chona should join the exodus. Chona, a kind woman with a spine of steel, thinks otherwise. In the midst of an argument, Moshe points out the kitchen window towards Pottstown below and shouts: "Down the hill is America!" But Chona is adamant, saying "America is here."

Fortunately, Chona wins that tug-of-war, which means she stays close to the Heaven & Earth Grocery Store. It's a gathering place for Polish, Bulgarian and Lithuanian Jews — everyone from shoemakers to gangsters — as well as Italian laborers and the so-called "colored maids, housekeepers, saloon cleaners, factory workers, and bellhops of Chicken Hill."

The diverse crowd is by no means "inclusive": Characters tend to stick with their own kind and racial and ethnic groups split into smaller cliques. Black people from Hemlock Row, for instance, derisively regard the residents of Chicken Hill as:

"on-the-move," "moving-on-up," "climb-the-tree," "NAACP-type" Negroes, wanting to be American.

But when the state decides to institutionalize a 12-year-old Black boy named "Dodo," — who's been branded, "deaf and dumb" — a group of characters violate lines of color and class (as well as the law) to try to save the boy.

That plot summary is so simplified I feel like I've committed some kind of a crime against the nuances of this novel. McBride's roving narrator is, by turns, astute, withering, giddy, damning and jubilant. He has a fine appreciation for the human comedy: in particular, the surreal situation of African Americans and immigrant Jews in a early-to-mid-20th-century America that celebrates itself as a color-blind, welcoming Land of Liberty.

Like his long-ago mentor at that summer camp, McBride doesn't pontificate; he gets his social criticism across through the story itself and in snappy conversations between characters. For instance, Moshe's cousin, a sourpuss named Isaac, asks a fellow immigrant if he wants "to go back to the old country." The other man replies:

I like it here. The politicians try to cut your throat with one hand while saluting the flag with the other. Then they tax you. Saves 'em the trouble of calling you a dirty Jew.

As he's done throughout his spectacular writing career, 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.

Copyright 2023 Fresh Air. To see more, visit Fresh Air.

Maureen Corrigan, book critic for NPR's Fresh Air, is The Nicky and Jamie Grant Distinguished Professor of the Practice in Literary Criticism at Georgetown University. She is an associate editor of and contributor to Mystery and Suspense Writers (Scribner) and the winner of the 1999 Edgar Award for Criticism, presented by the Mystery Writers of America. In 2019, Corrigan was awarded the Nona Balakian Citation for Excellence in Reviewing by the National Book Critics Circle.