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‘The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store,’ a Lost History of Black and Jewish Solidarity

‘The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store,’ a Lost History of Black and Jewish Solidarity

Near the end of James McBride’s new novel, The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, a character named Miggy makes a proclamation about what truly ails the folks living in the asylum where she works:

The illness is not in their minds, or in the color of their skin, or in the despair in their heart, or even the money they may or may not have. Their illness is honesty, for they live in a world of lies, ruled by those who surrendered all the good things that God gived them for money, living on stolen land.

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Miggy is the oracle of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, and a teller of truths that leap off the pages of the novel to describe America’s abiding troubles. Before long, she’s cutting a slice of the town’s best sweet-potato pie into slivers to diagram an escape route for an inmate of the asylum. That’s classic McBride: He doesn’t shy away from bold statements about the national catastrophes of race and xenophobia, and he always gives us a spoonful of sugar to help the medicine go down.

The sugar is McBride’s spitfire dialogue and murder-mystery-worthy plot machinations; his characters’ big personalities and bigger storylines; his wisecracking, fast-talking humor; and prose so agile and exuberant that reading him is like being at a jazz jam session (which is no coincidence; McBride is an accomplished jazz musician). The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store is set in the 1920s in the Chicken Hill neighborhood of Pottstown, an actual place that, as in the novel, was home to Jewish immigrants and to African Americans who’d migrated from the South. In the prologue, we learn that the last Jewish inhabitant, a mysterious figure named Malachi, has disappeared after cops showed up on his doorstep—and just before Hurricane Agnes sweeps in and destroys the whole area in 1972.

The novel proper then plants us in the thriving Chicken Hill of 47 years earlier. At the center of a large cast of characters is Moshe Ludlow, a Romanian immigrant and music-club manager married to the love of his life, the irreverent and bighearted Chona, who owns and operates the titular Heaven & Earth grocery store. Nate and Addie Timblin, a couple in Moshe and Chona’s employ, are shrewd elders and leaders of Chicken Hill’s Black community.

Moshe’s music club, the All-American Dance Hall and Theater, attracts Jewish musicians and revelers from all over the region. But it’s in the middle of segregated downtown Pottstown, so when Moshe decides to host Black musicians, protest erupts among the white elite. Ultimately, desegregating the club draws the Jewish and Black residents closer together. Moshe, and the reader, discovers abundant cultural parallels between the two communities. A performance at the club’s first “Negro” dance by Chick Webb “and his roaring twelve-piece band was the greatest musical event Moshe had ever witnessed in his life,” McBride writes, “except for the weekend he managed to lure Mickey Katz, the brilliant but temperamental Yiddish genius of klezmer music.”

But McBride doesn’t stage a kumbaya moment just yet. Jews are leaving Chicken Hill. In addressing their flight, he raises one of the novel’s core questions: What is Americanness, and who gets to claim it? A Black juke-joint owner named Fatty says, “The Jews round here now, they wanna be in the big room with the white folks.” He goes on to argue that Black people on the Hill will always be refused their share in the country’s bounties. And indeed, Moshe wants to get while the getting’s good: “Down the hill is America!” he declares. But Chona won’t have it. So Moshe stays, tugged by his desire to become a nightclub impresario and join in American wealth, comfort, and cultural amnesia but bound by Chona’s connection to the store, the neighborhood, and a higher morality based on community involvement and her faith.

McBride introduces a 12-year-old deaf orphan named Dodo into the mix, a plot turn that soon provides a common enemy to consolidate communal ties. Pennsylvania authorities get wind of the boy, who’s been taken in by his aunt and uncle Addie and Nate, and decide to institutionalize him in the Pennhurst asylum—34 ominous buildings, sprawled across 200 acres, from which people, many of them Black, never return. Doc Roberts, the local physician who crusades to put Dodo away, is a leader in the local Ku Klux Klan and revered by white Pottstown, a villain with a worldview straight out of the racist xenophobe’s playbook: White, Christian America is becoming polluted by immigrants and Black people, and order must be restored to keep the nation great.

Though the Dodo storyline risks being a bit on the nose, deft characterization and unexpected tonal variations help complicate the reader’s perspective and add nuance and depth. No villain escapes McBride’s humor, which serves as a reset when the prose might otherwise veer toward the didactic. Even kind Chona gets one in when she says of Roberts, “He’s so fat the back of his head looks like a pack of hot dogs.” More important, McBride’s good guys are far from purely virtuous. Nate Timblin has a violent past and a chilling potential to accelerate from zero to murderous in an instant—yet he is one of the novel’s heroes. And if the nonstop action, a McBride staple, sometimes becomes dizzying, the commotion works against oversimplification. Nearly everyone on Chicken Hill has a role to play in Dodo’s rescue, even those with side hustles who would just as soon stay clear of the whole business. There are no rugged individuals, and no action is without ripple effects, many of them unpredictable. As Miggy says, “Everything got everything to do with everything.”

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store joins a project that unites McBride’s work—four other novels, one short-story collection, a biography of James Brown, and a memoir, The Color of Water: He is resurrecting lost histories of coexistence. Our current era of wrecking-ball polemics lends his oeuvre an air of wishfulness and, at the same time, makes the work that much more relevant. Reading McBride just feels good—we are comforted and entertained, and braced for the hard lessons he also delivers. Plunged into McBride’s crowds, you can’t help falling a little in love with a character called Monkey Pants (who teaches Dodo how to navigate the perils of Pennhurst), or a whole passel of people with the last name Lowgod (Pottstown’s sage outliers). The style is improvisational, colloquial, and satiric. Listen to one of Chicken Hill’s own warn against doing domestic work in white folk’s houses: “The men grope and the women mope.” It’s funny despite, or perhaps because of, its truth—and conveyed with a wit that exposes the gropers and mopers as the most pitiable and poor of spirit in Pottstown.

Each of these characters has troubles aplenty. In that sense, all of them are alone in a crowd. But it is the crowd that keeps the past, and the difficult present, from overwhelming them. The only way forward is coalition, however messy and painful. The point isn’t just that strength lies in numbers; in McBride’s books, community is a place of recognition, of inventiveness and joy-making, and a hedge against despair and the daily grind of living with limited options.

That despair has deep roots that can be traced back to the nation’s beginnings. We live with the consequences—political, social, and legislative—of foundational segregation and its accompanying isolation. McBride has set two novels, most notably the National Book Award–winning The Good Lord Bird (2013), during the slave past, and seems to echo Alexis de Tocqueville’s antebellum diagnosis of our national character. Americans in their fledgling democracy, Tocqueville observed in his travels,

are apt to imagine that their whole destiny is in their own hands. Thus, not only does democracy make every man forget his ancestors, but it hides his descendants, and separates his contemporaries from him; it throws him back forever upon himself alone, and threatens in the end to confine him entirely within the solitude of his own heart.

In The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, as in nearly all of McBride’s work, almost nothing of significant value is accomplished by people acting alone. When Chicken Hill’s water supply, for example, is threatened by a white landowner with a grudge, Fatty and his best friend, Big Soap, an Italian immigrant, team up with Nate to thwart his plans. In Deacon King Kong (2020), set in a Brooklyn housing project in the 1960s, an old rascal named Sportcoat, the deacon of the title, shoots a local drug dealer point-blank. The young man survives the attack, and what begins as an altercation between two individuals soon becomes a community-wide affair: The Black residents of the Cause Houses—Great Migration immigrants to the North—alongside remnants of the old Italian and Irish populations, are all involved in the events that drive the novel to its conclusion.

A packed stage has been a feature of McBride’s work since his first book, The Color of Water (1996), in which he describes a tumultuous upbringing with his larger-than-life white mother, the daughter of Orthodox Jews who fled pogroms in Poland. Estranged from her family, Ruth McBride Jordan settled in Brooklyn, where McBride grew up in the 1960s and ’70s, one of her 12 children. Their mixed-race heritage made them anomalies in their neighborhood, and their interconnectedness was their source of meaning, pathos, pain, and triumph. It also spurred a search for a larger sense of belonging, which they eventually found, thanks in no small part to their mother’s example. Twice widowed, she was searching for affinity and support herself. Undaunted by raised eyebrows, she discovered community with the Black neighbors among whom she reared her children.

McBride’s integrationist vision isn’t utopian or easy. Nor is it assimilationist. His fiction doesn’t seek to erase differences, or to deny the realities of racism and marginalization. The vision doesn’t go uncontested, either: McBride’s own characters don’t always buy the notion that narratives of shared struggles and spaces build solidarity, and some readers may believe with good reason that white supremacy and its attendant evils are too great to be overcome by racial proximity.

But McBride’s fiction makes a strong argument for revisiting the embattled past in all its confusion. The purpose is to unearth communal stories and unlikely loyalties rather than render tidy verdicts—precisely the imaginative quest that Heaven & Earth’s prologue has laid the groundwork for. Malachi, once a dancer but now so old that a single yellow tooth hangs “like a clump of butter from his top gum,” is suddenly a suspect in a long-forgotten crime in Chicken Hill. But the hurricane arrives, “and from there, every single bit of that who-shot-John-nonsense got throwed into the Schuylkill, and from there, it flowed into the Chesapeake Bay down in Maryland, and from there, out to the Atlantic.” In McBride’s work, digging deep into the tangled roots of complicated communities is the antidote to misplaced blame and false history.

This article appears in the September 2023 print edition with the headline “Lost Histories of Coexistence.”

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