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  • Writer's pictureGaili Schoen

The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store

I just finished listening to the audiobook of The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store written by National book Award winner James McBride. It was a beautiful, heartbreaking and amazing story, and I highly recommend it to all. Here's the synopsis from Kirkus Reviews:

"It's June 1972, and the Pennsylvania State Police have some questions concerning a skeleton found at the bottom of an old well in the ramshackle Chicken Hill section of Pottstown that’s been marked for redevelopment. But Hurricane Agnes intervenes by washing away the skeleton and all other physical evidence of a series of extraordinary events that began more than 40 years earlier, when Jewish and African American citizens shared lives, hopes, and heartbreak in that same neighborhood. At the literal and figurative heart of these events is Chona Ludlow, the forbearing, compassionate Jewish proprietor of the novel’s eponymous grocery store, whose instinctive kindness and fairness toward the Black families of Chicken Hill exceed even that of her husband, Moshe, who, with Chona’s encouragement, desegregates his theater to allow his Black neighbors to fully enjoy acts like Chick Webb’s swing orchestra. Many local White Christians frown upon the easygoing relationship between Jews and Blacks, especially Doc Roberts, Pottstown’s leading physician, who marches every year in the local Ku Klux Klan parade. The ties binding the Ludlows to their Black neighbors become even stronger over the years, but that bond is tested most stringently and perilously when Chona helps Nate Timblin, a taciturn Black janitor at Moshe’s theater and the unofficial leader of his community, conceal and protect a young orphan named Dodo who lost his hearing in an explosion. [Dodo] isn’t at all 'feeble-minded,' but the government wants to put him in an institution promising little care and much abuse. The interlocking destinies of these and other characters make for tense, absorbing drama and, at times, warm, humane comedy."

The longer I read, the more I fell in love with the characters, especially Chona, Nate, Fatty, Dodo, and Dodo's friend who has cerebral palsy, Monkey Pants. The audiobook features narration by Dominic Hoffman who did a great job with the various regional Black and Yiddish accents (the Poles, Germans and Romanians all sounded the same, but that was ok with me). I learned a lot about how difficult it was to survive as a non-white non-Christian in 1930s America, and was reminded of how important it is to build strong, caring communities today. I'm sure The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store will win some literary awards this year. It would also make a great film.

When beloved Chona is sent to the hospital after she was attacked, many from her town come to see her:

"In the hallway of the Reading hospital unit, the odd group of well-wishers gathered in front of the nurses' station. Three white nurses glanced at the then turned back to their charts. No one bothered to mention if there was a place for the group to go, so they stood there. There was nowhere to sit, no coffee to drink, no kind Presbyterian minister to offer words of solace. They just stood uncomfortably as the odd clump of Americans they were: Jews and blacks, standing together."

Audiobook 12 hrs, 21 mins, Hardcover 400 pages


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