James McBride’s The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store tells the story of Black and Jewish characters living side-by-side in the 1920s and 30s. Holding both Black and Jewish identities, staff and board members at Be’chol Lashon shared their reflections on this piece of historical fiction.
Octavia Shulman, Board Member
James McBride’s “The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store” is a story of the things that unite and divide the white, Black and Jewish communities in small town 1920s-30s Pennsylvania. It centers on Moshe and Chona Ludlow who own the Heaven and Earth Grocery Store in Chicken Hill. Chicken Hill is much like the small Southern Louisiana neighborhood I grew up in. It was environmentally neglected with no connection to “city” water, making its residents rely on old wells. The town is full of characters whose personalities and abilities either grew out of the necessity of the place or were stunted because of it.
I think Mr. McBride, as both a Black and Jewish person, was the best person to tell this story. Sometimes the book reads like a collection of short stories. Each character’s story and background are rich and complicated enough to stand on their own. The members of the Black and Jewish communities are whole people, especially in the detail of their own ethical and moral failures. They don’t exist merely to prop each other up. Members of each community are keenly aware of their ‘otherness.’ There is honor and pride in both communities as they chafe against the external limitations. They know how far they can go in terms of getting access to services that should be equally accessible to everyone and the inability to seek justice from the government and institutions. It is a wonderful rich read that will leave you full of Black and Jewish pride.
Tani Prell, Staff
This story brings us to a time in America where, by choice or by force, racial, ethnic and cultural lines are distinct, while showing how the lines that existed outside of whiteness were bound together. Mr. McBride pays close attention to how he shows readers the uniqueness of character’s backgrounds, and the universality of their hearts. We are regularly returned to themes that connect us all–a desire to live, a need for connection, a hope for the future. This is a book that we need right now. It shows the ways that we can exist in our differences while still being accountable to the humanity of others.
Nia Taylor, Board Member
“The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store” is a thought provoking story about coexistence. More specifically, an idealized version of what I would like our world to be like. A place where people from all walks of life can have their differences (racial, cultural, religious, etc.) but know that in good times and challenging times that we can support one another.