The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store is imbued with the sort of fairy tale magical realism that would normally be enough to put me off. Yet this quirky, deceptively light novel about Jews and Black people coexisting in a hardscrabble Pennsylvania neighbourhood in the 1930s is an utter delight. And in a gloomy period for global Jewry, it’s a panacea to read of different communities coming together to defeat prejudice.
It begins with the discovery of a skeleton in 1972 in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. But before long, it zips back in time to a Jewish couple in the 1930s living in an undesirable scrap of land known as Chicken Hill. Moshe is a theatre impresario who is trying to organise a night of Yiddish entertainment. A typo means he inadvertently invites the audience to “watch the Jews burn”, a minor hiccup from which he soon recovers. Meanwhile his passionate, altruistic balabusta wife Chona runs the eponymous grocery store, albeit not particularly efficiently since she keeps extending credit to the neighbourhood’s multi ethnic immigrants.
Chona is the heart and soul of this book. Fiery, unafraid to tackle bigotry head on, her gift, McBride writes, is that she had “not an ounce of bitterness or shred of shame. Unlike Moshe, Chona was an American”. Her can-do attitude eventually drives Moshe, his black janitor Nate and other characters to divest themselves of their fears and become people of action.
It’s all laid on a little thick, like Fiddler on the Roof written by an American with copious talk of the old country and how different America is. The first section gets a bit bogged down, with the appearance of a mysterious dancing peddler, while Moshe experiences recurring dreams about Moses. But gradually, the whimsy moves aside and the novel becomes both a high stakes thriller and a heartrending tale of a community uniting to save a wrongly accused deaf black boy from incarceration in an asylum.
Along the way we meet a collection of Black, Jewish and Italian characters, with full bodied back stories and suitably memorable names like Paper Millison (town gossip) Miggy Fludd (a pseudo fortune teller) and Fatty Davis (proprietor of the local speakeasy). There are irate shoemaker brothers from Lithuania, a gruesome Klu Klax Klansman, and arguments over the synagogue Mikveh, in a meandering tale that takes its time to reach its final showdown.
That showdown is somewhat anticlimactic, but it’s a riotous journey. And if some of the Yiddishkeit is overdone, it’s nonetheless a thoughtful, curious novel with characters that live and breathe and will remain in your mind long after the final page.
The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride
Weidenfeld & Nicolson, £20