Few authors are as adept at articulating characters through their relationship with a place as James McBride. His latest novel centers on a community known as Chicken Hill in Pennsylvania, the home of the titular Heaven and Earth grocery store. We are transported to various points in this community’s history, but most of the story takes place in the late 1930s. One of my biggest issues with the novel was the number of digressions – they serve a purpose! They allow us to fall deeply into a character’s past, showcasing the nuances in their relationship to the sprawling cast. And yet, they often took me so far outside of the plot that I didn’t feel truly connected to the main storyline until at least half way through the novel. I considered whether I should count this one as a DNF – but I persevered, and I’m glad I did. The payoffs were well worth the time for me – but I wouldn’t fault someone for making the opposite choice.
It bears repeating that McBride is just masterful at creating complex characters, and they are the threads that I held onto when the digressions started to frustrate me. The Heaven and Earth grocery store is a special place run by a Jewish family in a largely Black neighborhood. This is a story that might be common in many near-city communities throughout the United States – any place where immigrants comingled with communities of Black families moving north to find greater opportunities post-reconstruction. On Chicken Hill, there is always a question of what it means to be American.
Do I want to spoil the plot for you? The premise of the novel is that a body was found in a water pipe that is connected to a local synagogue in 1972. This is the story of how that body came to be within that pipe, more or less. It’s the story of how Moshe, a Jewish immigrant who runs a local dance hall, fell in love with Chona, whose parents ran the Heaven and Earth grocery store. It’s the story of how, years later, Nate and Addie take in Addie’s nephew, known as Dodo after an accident left him almost completely deaf. Its a story about how far the community would go to protect one another. There are so many characters here – Fatty, Big Soap, Bernice, the Skrup bothers and dastardly Doc Roberts, Monkey Pants. By the time you finish reading, things will have happened, sure. But also, you’ll know the people who did those things.
Remember when I said I wouldn’t fault someone for making the opposite choice, for putting this book down when the asides become too much? I take that back. I wouldn’t want you to miss this. The care and attention, the ultimate craft, pull this novel together in a singular fashion. It’s a chord that is well played.