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  • Writer's pictureThe Bossy Bookworm

Review of The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride

The mystery bookends feel largely unimportant to the story, the cast of characters sometimes feels endless, and the story meanders, but there's heart in the connection between characters when crises inspire it.

James McBride's The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store tracks the victories, missteps, losses, and love among a host of characters in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, in the 1930s.

Chicken Hill is a hardscrabble neighborhood where Jewish families live alongside Black families--outside the sphere of power and wealth of the white members of Pottstown.

Their cultures conflict in some ways, but their stories and existences overlap, and their challenges intersect when a young boy is taken from the community, culminating in a mysterious death, which raises questions decades later.

Chona is one link between the two groups, serving as the key nonjudgmental middle-woman in the story. With her savvy smarts and big heart, she was one of my favorite characters.

In The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store, injustices also abound, and powerful, terrible men take advantage of the young or physically challenged in atrocious ways. Unlikely heroes save the victims (in one case, in elaborate and outlandish fashion) from further damage.

The mystery that bookends the story is not essential to the novel. By the time the story ended, I had forgotten about the mystery's brief introduction at the beginning of the book. The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store is built upon the swirls of interconnected, meandering stories; the side plots; and the parade of characters, including many minor figures and their back stories, that make up the bulk of the book.

I found myself wanting to feel more rooted in the story, in the setting, and in what the important issues were for the characters. Some of the story felt tedious, as with the ongoing saga of securing a water source and the extensive history of not having done so. I kept wondering if a stronger editorial hand might have tightened up the story so its essence could shine more brightly.

I listened to The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store as an audiobook.

Do you have any Bossy thoughts about this book?

McBride is also the author of Deacon King Kong and The Good Lord Bird.


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