The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, by James McBride

You don’t often think that reading a book is like eating your vegetables, but in the case of James McBride’s Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, that’s exactly what it felt like.  Reading it now, just after the holidays, and after having spent the last few weeks eating leftover lasagna, turkey, and a sundry of pies (while standing in front of the refrigerator, because, no calories, right?) got me thinking that just as my body was starting to crave actual nutrients, my mind does the same.  McBride’s book is a TOUGH read, and I am an AVID reader, but I still put it down and nearly gave up several times.  I went back to it though, because I had a feeling there was something nutritious between the pages.  Something that would help me grow, so to speak, so I slogged through to the incredibly satisfying end.

And I was right.

So, two things: First, it was a struggle to simply read McBride’s prose because it is just so dense!  His characters rarely have conversations with each other and more often ruminate on conversations that happened off page and fifty years ago.  Also, each character had what felt like an entire novel of backstory that the reader is expected to keep in her head as the story progresses, because McBride does an amazing job of weaving his characters’ stories together for nifty little plot twists.  And have I mentioned the fact that there are something like twenty characters in this story?  And that McBride refers to each of his characters by upwards of four to five different names?  It’s like he’s deliberately trying to challenge his readers, and when the lazy reader in me is pushed aside by the former English teacher, I’m cheering for him all the way.

So, second thing (well, more like fifth thing, but oh well): Aside from McBride being an amazing writer, the main reason I wanted to read the book is because it’s based on my hometown of Pottstown, PA!  What a rare and exciting thing, to have a famous writer create his story around the streets and people and history of where you live.  And that excitement lasted all the way to page 25, which is when I put the book aside, horrified.  The story is set sometime in the 1930’s (it’s not easy to tell what time period we’re in, and this book jumps around quite a bit), and one of the characters, Chona, writes letters to the Pottstown Mercury (our town newspaper, still in existence and one I subscribe to) complaining about the KKK having their annual march through Pottstown.  I had to look it up to realize how incredibly naïve I was.  It never occurred to me that such a thing would happen so far north, so recently in history, and in my hometown.  The rest of the book held similar surprises with equally appalling reactions.

As a white woman, this book made me uncomfortable in a valuable way.  It offered a window into lives I will never be a part of, ones filled with challenges and heartaches that will never be mine.  It reminded me of the world of unknown unknowns that I live and work in, but never see or experience.  (I *think* that is Kant, but I’m not sure.  If someone remembers who wrote about “unknown unknowns” please message me!)  In short, this book gave me pause.  This is the best and only way I can put it.

But truly, please read The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store and meet Chona and Nate and Moshe and Addie.  It may take you a while, but if you can get to the character of Dodo, it should be easy going from there.  Dodo shines in every scene.  Dodo is deaf and so is my daughter, so he sits in a special place in the kingdom that is made up of all my favorite characters from all my favorite books.

And read the book to find out what a “Monkey Pants” is.  Because when you do, you’ll love him, and then you’ll cry for him.

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4 Responses

  1. Yes! I thought all of these things!
    Do you know, was this part of Pottstown later destroyed? And is the description of who lived where accurate?

    I listened to it on audio—had no idea what I was in for—and totally agreed that it was one of the most challenging books I’ve read in quite awhile! Thanks for your blog thoughts 🙂

    1. I tried to cobble together clues from the setting of the book to figure out where these families were living in Pottstown, and I might have figured it out. If I’m right, the neighborhood looks entirely different now. Also, McBride was a bit criticized for some inaccuracies in his details. I didn’t mind though, since that wasn’t the point of his story. It would be fun to know though! I thought I’d do a bit more digging and post some pictures when I can! Thanks for your post!

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