Read With Us Selection
Fall 2023

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store
by James McBride

“The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store” confirms the abiding strength of McBride’s vernacular narrative. With his eccentric, larger-than-life characters and outrageous scenes of spliced tragedy and comedy, “Dickensian” is not too grand a description for his novels, but the term is ultimately too condescending and too Anglican. The melodrama that McBride spins is wholly his own, steeped in our country’s complex racial tensions and alliances. Surely, the time is not too far distant when we’ll refer to other writers’ hypnotically entertaining stories as McBridean.

— Ron Charles, from his review in The Washington Post

Brief Synopsis

From James McBride, author of the bestselling Oprah’s Book Club pick Deacon King Kongand the National Book Award–winning The Good Lord Bird, a novel about small-town secrets and the people who keep them.

In 1972, when workers in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, were digging the foundations for a new development, the last thing they expected to find was a skeleton at the bottom of a well. Who the skeleton was and how it got there were two of the long-held secrets kept by the residents of Chicken Hill, the dilapidated neighborhood where immigrant Jews and African Americans lived side by side and shared ambitions and sorrows. Chicken Hill was where Moshe and Chona Ludlow lived when Moshe integrated his theater and where Chona ran the Heaven & Earth Grocery Store. When the state came looking for a deaf boy to institutionalize him, it was Chona and Nate Timblin, the Black janitor at Moshe’s theater and the unofficial leader of the Black community on Chicken Hill, who worked together to keep the boy safe.

As these characters’ stories overlap and deepen, it becomes clear how much the people who live on the margins of white, Christian America struggle and what they must do to survive. When the truth is finally revealed about what happened on Chicken Hill and the part the town’s white establishment played in it, McBride shows us that even in dark times, it is love and community—heaven and earth—that sustain us.

Bringing his masterly storytelling skills and his deep faith in humanity to The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, James McBride has written a novel as compassionate as Deacon King Kong and as inventive as The Good Lord Bird.

Information About the Author

In this Monday, Jan. 23, 2012 file photo, author and filmmaker James McBride poses for a portrait during the 2012 Sundance Film Festival in Park City, Utah. James McBride has the won the National Book Award for fiction for his novel “The Good Lord Bird.”, Wednesday, Nov. 20, 2013. AP Photo/Victoria Will, File)

James McBride is an award-winning author, musician, and screenwriter. His landmark memoir, The Color of Water, published in 1996, has sold millions of copies and spent more than two years on the New York Times bestseller list. Considered an American classic, it is read in schools and universities across the United States. His debut novel, Miracle at St. Anna, was turned into a 2008 film by Oscar-winning writer and director Spike Lee, with a script written by McBride. His 2013 novel, The Good Lord Bird, about American abolitionist John Brown, won the National Book Award for Fiction and will be a Showtime limited series in fall 2020 starring Ethan Hawke.


You can read James McBride’s more extended biographical information here, on his website.

Book Reviews

From NPR’s Fresh AirJames McBride’s ‘Heaven & Earth’ is an all-American mix of prejudice and hope

From The GuardianThe Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride review – sweet solidarity

From the New York TimesJames McBride’s Latest is a Murder Mystery Inside a Great American Novel

From the Washington PostJames McBride’s new novel entertains while getting deep about equality

Author Interviews

From WHYY (on NPR/PBS) – James McBride’s ‘The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store’ (This is an excellent and informative 50-minute radio interview.)

You Tube – James McBride discussing the themes of his new novel with Jeffrey Brown on PBS News Hour (This is a 7-minute video.)


Supplemental Resources 

Anti-Semitism in the 1920s and 1930s – an article from The Abraham Lincoln Brigade Archives

Information about the history of Pennhurst (in timeline format)

An explanation of Tikkun Olam

A history of disability rights in America (by decade; this link will take you to the 1930s)

For some background information on The Variety Club Camp for Handicapped Children (McBride’s inspiration for the book), here is James McBride’s guest post on the Barnes & Noble website A Place of Hope and Humanity: A Guest Post from James McBride

List of Characters

(This list is from Marmalade and Mustardseed, a blog dedicated to creating thorough and informative book guides for book groups.)

Malachi the dancer— a Jewish dancer who floats in and out of the novel— a bit wizard-like
Chona— Jewish American who welcomes everyone into her store on Chicken Hill
Moshe Ludlow— Romanian Jewish owner of the All-American Dance Hall and Theater in Pottstown, married to Chona
Isaac— Moshe’s older cousin in Philadelphia
Nate Timblin— Black resident on Chicken Hill
Addie Timblin— Respected stateswoman on Chicken Hill, married to Nate
Dodo— Addie’s 12-year old nephew who lost his hearing when a stove exploded
Fatty Davis— Black owner of the Juke joint on Chicken Hill
Enzo Carissimi, aka Big Soap— white Italian immigrant on Chicken Hill, close friends with Fatty
Fioria Carissimi— Enzo’s mother
Doc Earl Roberts— white doctor and member of Ku Klux Klan
Bernice Davis— Fatty’s sister, Chona’s neighbor since childhood
Patty Millison aka Newspaper— Black laundress on Chicken Hill and town information spreader
Irv and Marv Skrupskelis— Jewish Lithuanian brother cobblers
Rusty— young Black man on Chicken Hill
Monkey Pants— boy with cerebral palsy at Pennhurst who befriends Dodo
Pia Fabicelli— white cleaning lady and city news sharer
Miggy Fludd— Black woman working at Pennhurst and living on Hemlock Row
Anna Morse— funeral home owner in Linfield
Bags— Rusty’s Uncle
Carl Boydkinses— Doc’s cousin and KKK member
Reverend Ed Spriggs, also known as Snooks— reverend on Chicken Hill
Yakov Flohr— Chona’s father, owner of the Heaven & Earth Grocery Store and first rabbi of Ahavat Achim
Karl Feldman— rabbi after Yakov
Shad Davis— Bernice and Fatty’s father, stonemason, built Heaven & Earth Grocery Store for Yakov and built Ahavat Achim
Gene— Fatty’s older cousin in Philadelphia
Gus Plitzka jr.— city council president and owner of the dairy on Chicken Hill
Bullis— Black man who delivers eggs and coffee to Pennhurst
Son of Man— violent pedophile employed at Pennhurst

Tuesday, January 9, 2024, 7:00 pm Eastern time
Questions will also be posted on our blogs: Highly Reasonable, Carole Knits, Dancing At the Edge.

Please RSVP to receive Zoom link information by emailing Kym Mulhern (email in sidebar) by January 8, 2024. Thank you.

“Light is only possible through dialogue between cultures, not through rejection of one or the other.”
James McBride, The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store