Monday, January 29, 2024

The Heaven and Earth Grocery by James McBride

Moshe Ludlow, a Romanian-born theater owner, opens the small town’s first integrated dance hall. His wife Chona runs The Heaven and Earth Grocery store on Chicken Hill, which caters to Blacks and European immigrants, mostly Jewish. Chona is generous and warm-hearted, and though the store makes little profit, she is loved by all the residents of Chicken Hill.

All of this wonderful novel,  by James McBride, and entitled The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store is devoted to the description of the lives of the poor and discarded residents of Chicken Hill. Chona extends credit to the poor residents in spite of knowing she is unlikely ever to be paid. McBride, as a novelist, is able to describe the racism and anti-semitism of the white community in ways neither journalists nor anthropologists could. While in many ways the residents of Chicken Hill struggle to survive at the margins of white Christian America, McBride’s story is full of humor and warmth.

Who cared that life was lonely, that jobs were thankless drudgery, that the romance of the proud American state was myth, that the rules  of life were laid carefully in neat books and laws written by stern Europeans who stalked the town and state like the grim reaper, with their righteous churches spouting that Jews murdered their precious Jesus Christ. Their fellow Pennsylvanians knew nothing about the shattered shtetls and destroyed synagogues of the old country; they had not set eyes on the stunned elderly immigrants starving in tenements in New York, the old ones who came alone, who spoke Yiddish only , whose children died or left them to live in charity homes, the women frightened until the end, the men consigned to a life of selling  vegetables and fruits on horse-drawn carts. They were a lost nation spread across the American countryside, bewildered, their Yeshiva education useless, their proud history ignored , as the clankety-clank of American industry churned around them, their proud past as watchmakers and tailors, scholars and historians, musicians and artists gone, wasted.   Americans cared about a money. And power. And government. Jews had none of these things, their job was to tread lightly in the land of milk an honey and be thankful that they were free to walk the land without getting their duffs kicked—or worse. Life in America was hard, but it was free, and if you worked hard , you might gain some opportunity, maybe even a shop  or business of some kind.

While much of this novel is social criticism, there is much joy in McBrides description of  music and dance in  the daily lives of the poor on Chicken Hill. Most of McBrides’ prose in this and his other novels is wild and fantastical and full of warmth.

Chona takes it upon herself to watch over the life of a deaf black child, and when the state comes looking for him claiming he needs to be institutionalized, Chona’s black neighbors help her to hide him away. The boy is eventually caught and sent to an insane asylum called Penhurst . Many of the workers at the so-called hospital are black folks from a nearby community; they are called the Lowgods. 

We is in the same place, you an I, being colored. We are visitors here. Thing is , us Lowgods, wherever we is from, the old Africaland, I suppose, we were keepers of our fellowman. That was our purpose. We’re still that way. That’s all we know of our history, the one was moved from us before we were brung here. You know what Lowgod means in our language? Little parent.

A local black worker named Nate Timblin, with the help of the Lowgods,  is able, nearly miraculously, to spring the boy from Penhurst.

This is a wonderful big-hearted novel by an incredible story teller. McBride’s writing is so unusual and non-sequential that some readers may find it difficult to follow his narrative, but the effort will be well rewarded if you do.

Monday, September 25, 2023

Lady Tan’s Circle of Women by Lisa See

This story begins in 1469, in the fifth year of the Chenghua emperor’s reign, when Tan Yunxian was eight years old.

So begins Lisa See’s superb account of Chinese medicine in the 15th century. On one level it is a simple story of a girl, Tan, who wants to become a doctor and is tutored by her grandparents who are both doctors. Her best friend Meiling is in training to be a midwife, and the two girls pursue their dreams under the kind but demanding eyes of Tan’s grandparents. The book is worth reading just for this simple and lovely story, but See’s real intent is to talk about Chinese medicine, and especially male Chinese doctors.

Confucius made clear that any profession in which blood is involved is considered below us…A midwife’s contact with blood places her in the same base level as a butcher. Furthermore, midwifes are disreputable. They are too much IN THE WORLD.

“Perhaps.” Grandmother sighs. “But since we physicians acknowledge blood is corrupt and corrupting, then how can a woman give birth without the aid of a midwife?”

This appears to be one of the only issues the grandparents disagree on. 

“Child look at me,” she says softly. “Respect your grandfather in all things but know as well that midwives are a necessity. A more pleasing phrase we use for a midwife is she who collects the newborn”

As absurd as it may sound to our western ears, Chinese doctors were not allowed even to touch a woman’s body. Insofar as they are involved in pregnancy and child birth it is only behind a screen set up between doctor and patient. A doctor “might attend to a woman in labor—giving her herbs to speed  the delivery and make the baby slippery” but that is all.

Each of the young girls envies the other. Tan envies Meiling because she can actually be in the world and help women have safe deliveries. Meiling envies Tan both for her wealth and position and because she  able to train to be a doctor.

He grandmother doctor tells Tan:

I’m irritated with men. I’m lucky to love your grandfather, but most men—other doctors especially—don’t like us to succeed. You must always show them respect and let them think they know more than you do, while understanding that you can achieve something they never can. You can actually help women.

Both girls are successful in their studies and, for different reasons, are invited to attend women in the emperor’s court. If they are successful, male doctors will be credited, and if they fail, their very lives may be at stake. 

Besides the history of Chinese medicine during this period, See gives the reader a long look at caste systems in China and the incredible history of foot-binding among the higher castes, and the ways in which higher caste girls are kept almost entirely out of the daily world of commerce.  Tan continues to envy Meiling’s ability to look at the real world rather than living a shuttered and sheltered life. 

After giving birth, the upper cast women do their month attended by a doctor and perhaps the midwife who assisted in the delivery. Watched over during the dangerous four weeks following birth.

Grandmother and I visit Lady Huang every morning to make sure she isn’t affected by noxious dew—old blood and tissue that refuses to leave the child palace…We bring with us different warming medicines. Grandmother has been  strict with Cook to make sure Lady Huang is offered warming food only. Her blood has transformed into milk, and the baby suckles well.

Western doctors have certainly had their dismal history of denigrating midwives and failing to progress in the treatment of pregnant women, even for a time refusing to release their patented grip on the use of forceps to aid in delivery. 

I loved this book on so many levels: the story, the researched history and the strong feminist bent the narrative takes.

I hear the sound of voices. Miss Zhao, Lady Kuo, and Poppy come into view and begin to cross the zigzag bridge to reach Meiling and me. For much of my life I felt alone, but over the years a circle of women came to love me, and I came to love each of those women in return…who knows , really, how many days might be left for a woman such as myself, and what yet I might do when surrounded by so much beauty and love.

Monday, August 14, 2023

Pomegranate by Helen Elaine Lee

We are told not to judge a book by its, cover, but I invite you to judge this book by its delicious cover, the content as rich and colorful as its cover. Pomegranate, by Helen Elaine Lee, is deeply insightful, sad and transformative.

The book begins and ends with the same refrain:
I live my life forward and backward.
Seems like my body remembers what I can’t afford to forget

Here I am alive and awake. Still going forward and backward. And brave enough to tell about it.
Ranita Atwater is finishing up a four year term at Oak Hills Correctional Center, about to be set free and determined to win back the parental rights that have been stripped from her.
I stand up, like I’m told. And as I approach the gates, the CO who’s opening them up gives me a last bit of scorn: “ Hasta luego; see you back here soon.” I throw some shade his way and walk through. And here it is, what I’ve been wanting and fearing. Freedom.
The novel goes forward and backward: forward to her struggle to remain clean and sober, to convince the courts that she is fit to visit her two children and eventually perhaps even to win back the right to raise them. And backwards to the four years of imprisonment and the events that led up to it.

Without looking for it, and surprised at finding it, Ranita (Nita) finds her first real love in prison. Maxine, politically astute and living through the lens of politics 24/7, is the first person to love Nita for who she is and not simply for what she can give.

The few visits she gets from her kids and her daddy are both treasured and feared.
Jesus. Struggling to get my balance in this present-past jumble. I’m just praying not everything my kids remember is bad. Reaching for the safety of low expectations, I own that nothing good will come of this. They’ll look right through me. I’ll say something stupid, something wrong. I’ll find nothing at all to say.
Amara, 13, and Theo, are nearly as anxious on these visits and in the early home visits once she is free, as Ranita is.
They listened for their names. Visualized their people coming through the trap. Bargained with their higher powers, Today, God willing, they would get a visit.

If they heard their names, they answered with relief and often tears. If they didn’t, there was another absence to add to all the others, as they receded further and further from the free world.
Ranita is lucky in some ways, she had a father who loved her and stood by her until he died during her last years of imprisonment. She had two aunties who had taken in her children, and were now charged with determining if Ranita was fit even to see her children, let alone live with them. And her mandated psychotherapist with immense power in the process of determining her fitness to parent turns out to be a good man and one who understands her on many levels, including her addictions.

Ranita learns to see the world politicly via her friend cum lover, Maxine who urges Ranita not to frequent the prison canteen, spending her pitiful earnings on sweets.
Everyone had to find a way to do their time, and the lens of politics was part of Maxine’s. She had no choice but seeing, and speaking what she saw.

“Seriously, Ranita” Maxine said “think about all the products we make inside ... electronic cables and T-shirts, mattresses and flags. American flags, if you can believe the grotesque irony of that. Locked up all the Black folks and then make us produce flags for the country that’s been demeaning and exploiting us since they captured and enslaved us ... after they’ve kept us from voting and owning anything, trapped us in city food deserts next to toxic waste, with shitty schools and shitty jobs and shitty food and shitty places to live ... no access, no exit ... policing every breath we take ... feeding us menthol cigarettes and drugs and blocking us from health care ... and pitted us against each other and against the folks who should be allies, hoping we’ll kill each other off ....”
Author Lee attended Harvard Law School and has been associated with dozens of prison groups and prison creative writing programs. She writes with such heart and such clarity of vision.
My dad, he’s spirit now. Gone and not gone. And that pomegranate he gifted me with, it’s got a whole other meaning.
I try and see myself as filled with ruby seeds. Everything I’ve lived, the things I’ve been and done…what’s done to me…and for me. The all of it, it’s in me.