Friday, December 22, 2023

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride
  The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store
Author:  James McBride
Publication Information:  Riverhead Books. 2023. 400 pages.
ISBN:  0593422945 / 978-0593422946

Rating:   ★★★

Book Source:  I read this book for a local book club.

Opening Sentence:  "There was an old Jew who lived at the site of the old synagogue up on Chicken Hill in the town of Pottstown, Pa., and when Pennsylvania State Troopers found the skeleton at the bottom of an old well off Hayes Street, the old Jew's house was the first place they went to."

Favorite Quote:  "It was proof of the American possibility of equality: we all can get along no matter what..."

Chicken Hill in Pottstown, Pennsylvania is a section of town populated by poor immigrants. The primary represented communities are Jews and Negroes. The two exist side-by-side, for the most part peacefully. Certain individuals bridge the gap between the communities. That is how the grocery store becomes a place where people come together. The mystery of the book is that a body is found. The story of how that body comes to be there is meant to draw the picture of this community and this era in history. It leads to a story of these two communities uniting to save one at-risk individual.

I want to love this book. Based on the author. Based on the awards it has won. Based on many saying this is book of the year. Even more importantly based on the fact that it is a story of immigrant community. It is a story of immigrant communities coming together to care and protect and create a combined, bound community. It is a story of a time and place where such communities were marginalized, and yet they are able to survive and, at times, even thrive.

I enjoy the book, but unfortunately I do not love it for several reasons.

The title of the book conjures up what should be a vivid image. The description of a small part of a small town - Chicken Hill in Pottstown, Pennsylvania - conjures up what should be vivid image. This grocery store and the people - especially the woman - who run it should be clear as I read.  However, I find the even after reading the entire book, a clear, vivid image does not emerge. I cannot picture the heaven and earth grocery store. I cannot picture Chicken Hill or its inhabitants. I find that odd in a book that should bring a time and place to life.

The book also has many characters, each with their own stories and subplots. Sometimes, too many. It is unclear why some of the subplots are there, and some don't seem to go anywhere. The names/nicknames of some characters (Dodo! Really?), perhaps appropriate to the time and place, also are a jarring note that, for me, interrupt the flow of the story. As such, I am challenged to remain engaged with the story and its outcome. Often, I am left wondering "what" and "why."

Book Club Perspective

This book ended up a short discussion because most of us shared this view of the book. The discussion is always shorted when our reactions on a book agree! Unfortunately, none of us was enthused enough about the book to pursue much in the way of reader's guides or discussion questions.

Please share your thoughts and leave a comment. I would love to "talk" to you.

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