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.

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