A Vision of Decency and Hope: Why James McBride Is Today’s Charles Dickens

By | Feb 15, 2024
Book Review, Fiction, Latest
James McBride Charles Dickens

James McBride's "The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store"The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, the latest novel by James McBride, just won not one but two National Jewish Book Awards, a first for an African-American author. Published in August 2023 to rave reviews, the novel—a sweeping story about poor Blacks and Jews in a small Pennsylvania town in the 1920s and 1930s—quickly rose to The New York Times bestseller list, where it has remained. 

McBride had written other bestsellers, including his debut book, the 1995 memoir The Color of Water: A Black Man’s Tribute to His White Mother. His mother was born into an Orthodox Jewish family in Poland and converted to Christianity after she married his African-American father in the 1940s. In the chapter titled “School,” McBride recounts the lengths to which his mother went to ensure that all of her twelve children received a good education, despite the poverty in which the family lived after the death of his father (who died before James was born) and then of his stepfather, another Black man James admired. Years before his mother finally told him about her Jewish family (a stern father who was a rabbi and made her work in the grocery store he owned on the side; a mother with polio who was unloved by her husband; a brother killed in World War II), it was “in her sense of education, more than any other, that Mommy conveyed her Jewishness to us,” he writes. She admired the way Jewish parents raised their children to excel in school. As a result, even at a time when he had no idea of his Jewish heritage, James and his siblings felt a kind of connection with Jews: “It was a feeling every one of us took into adulthood, that Jews were different from white people somehow.” Clearly, these are meant as words of praise.

In The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store, McBride orchestrates that feeling into a full symphony, creating a place and describing a time when Jews had not yet become “white” in America. The question of Jews’ relation to white Americans (and therefore also to Black ones) is a leitmotif in the novel, raised at various moments by the characters themselves. 

As in Dickens, there are plenty of rambling comic scenes that lead somewhere important.

The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store was the first book I read by McBride, and I loved it for a perhaps surprising reason: He reminded me of Charles Dickens. His novels have the same qualities I love in David Copperfield or Nicholas Nickleby: an intricate yet leisurely plot, an array of colorful characters who hold forth in dialogues that sometimes go on for pages, but above all, a fundamental decency and hopeful vision that are much harder to come by these days than in the era of Queen Victoria. 

I renewed my acquaintance with Dickens in the first dark days of the COVID-19 lockdown, when, deprived of all other exercise, I started going on long daily walks in my neighborhood. Separated from my son and his family, even though they lived only two miles away, I thought of those walks as my link to sanity, a break from the bewilderment and fear that were our daily fare. But they would have become unbearably boring, once I had memorized every front yard and noted every budding tulip and flowering tree along my route, had it not been for my discovery of audiobooks. 

Dickens was the first author I turned to. I chose him because his books were long, good for days and days of walking. And while I had forgotten most of their details, I remembered they had given me enormous pleasure. I needed pleasure. I listened to David Copperfield and Bleak House, then ventured into Nicholas Nickleby and Our Mutual Friend, which had been on my “to read” list forever. I loved them all. Dickens’s plots have many detours, characters who may pop out of nowhere and shine for a few pages, never to be seen again, while others return often, gaining heft with every reappearance. The people in these books talk a lot, each with his or her own intonation and phrasing. (Mrs. Badger, in Bleak House, is forever remembering her first two husbands, now deceased, who couldn’t have been more different from each other or from her “dear third, Mr. Badger,” who thank goodness is still living.) Many spirited conversations seem to go nowhere, offered just for the pleasure of the gab, until suddenly they reveal a nugget essential to the plot. 

I reveled in Dickens’s love of storytelling and his unique ability to combine pathos with humor. But I was even more taken with the fundamental decency that permeates his works; maybe that’s why he was so beloved in his lifetime, by the high-born and the lowly the world over. 

There are plenty of villains in Dickens’s novels: Think of David’s hardhearted stepfather, Mr. Murdstone, or the sadistic schoolmaster who hires Nicholas Nickleby, Mr. Squeers. Their names alone tell us they’re not good people, and they all get their comeuppance in the end. In a strange way, though, even the villains are more contemptible than downright evil. I had the feeling, reading Dickens, that the world, while full of things that needed mending, was not without hope. It was not a bad place to be, emotionally and intellectually, in 2020. 

Four years later, with COVID still among us and another cliffhanger election looming, we may be in even more need of such solace; that may explain, in part, the success of The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store. McBride, who was born in 1957, is no sentimentalist, but neither does he dabble in despair. “Cynicism in a story is toxic,” he told correspondent Jeffrey Brown in a PBS interview on the day the book was released. “You have to really have the desire to see the good in people.” There are at least a couple of characters in Grocery Store in whom no good is visible (the pedophile rapist who blasphemously calls himself Son of Man, for example), but most of the characters have something in them that can be loved. 

The rescue plot points to The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store as a plea for Black-Jewish dialogue and community—all the more important in the present day.

The narrative begins in 1972, when Pennsylvania state troopers knock on the door of an “old Jew” who lives on the site of the former synagogue of Pottstown in the rundown Black neighborhood of Chicken Hill: They have come to question the old man after finding a skeleton in the bottom of a nearby well, along with a pendant that holds a mezuzah. All will be explained in the last chapter—and a hurricane will sweep away the evidence before that—but the apparent mystery is not the real subject of the novel. A reader may almost overlook the narrator’s remark in the first chapter that “for us colored folk on the Hill,” even the hurricane appeared as “just another day of dodging the white man’s evil.” The narrator never refers to himself in subsequent chapters, where everything is told by an omniscient voice, but McBride wants us to be aware from the start that the story has a point of view.

After this opening, the narrative jumps back more than four decades to a morning in 1925, when Moshe Ludlow, a Jewish immigrant from Romania who owns Pottstown’s All-American Dance Hall and Theater, is cleaning up after the previous night’s performance by the Black musician Chick Webb and his orchestra. The occasion is significant. Moshe has decided only recently to open up his theater to Black performers and Black customers, braving the fury of Pottstown’s leading White citizens. The decision has made him good money, but it was also an act of solidarity with the town’s other outcasts (as a Jew and an immigrant, he is one himself). He is supported in this endeavor by his faithful Black employee Nate Timblin and his beloved new wife Chona, a local Jewish girl, the daughter of a rabbi originally from Bulgaria. Chona is a kind of outcast too—on top of being a Jew she has a bad limp from polio—but she is smart and pretty, reads lots of books, including the Talmud, and has strong opinions (such as her disapproval of the Ku Klux Klan, to which some of the town’s leading gentlemen belong), which she often voices in letters to the editor of the daily paper. Moshe adores her.

Chona works in her father’s grocery store on Chicken Hill, a neighborhood where immigrant Jews, Blacks, Italians and other poor folks live. Soon Moshe, prospering from his theater and his prudent investments in the stock market, is able to buy the store and the whole building, with a comfortable apartment for him and Chona on the second floor. A few years after that, he’s rich enough to want to close the store and move down from the Hill to the better part of town, where Chona won’t have to work and “where the Americans are,” he tells her. But she laughs at this idea. “Which Americans?” she asks, then tells him firmly that she’s not moving and she’ll run the store herself.

Chona’s store becomes the hub of Chicken Hill, offering credit to whoever needs it with no date for repayment. Eventually it shelters yet another outcast, Nate’s orphaned, deaf nephew Dodo, who has lost his mother and his hearing in an accident and whom the authorities want to put in a state school and hospital for the disabled. This situation drives the rest of the plot, as the community tries to rescue Dodo from this nightmarish fate, allowing McBride to introduce a whole cast of supporting characters; all of them are either Black or Jewish (plus an Italian), and each plays a part in the rescue scheme. As in Dickens, there are plenty of rambling comic scenes that lead somewhere important, such as the one where Miggy, a Black hospital worker, takes an agonizingly long time eating a piece of sweet potato pie but turns out to be constructing an edible signal to Dodo’s rescuers. There are also subplots, one of which involves the well where the skeleton will be found decades later. 

The important question of Jews’ relation to whiteness in America comes up in many different ways. When Chona asks Moshe “which Americans” live in the fancy part of town, she is suggesting that the Black people around whom she grew up are Americans too, like all the other outcasts who live on Chicken Hill. Many chapters later, Moshe’s wealthy cousin Isaac, another immigrant from Romania, pursues the question further in a dialogue with the Black janitor Nate. “You and I are strangers to this land, mister,” Nate tells him, reminding him of “all the troubles” he and Moshe had had in getting to America. But Isaac declares that he’s a patriot and loves this country: “It’s been good to me.” “Good for you then,” Nate replies. He obviously doesn’t share Isaac’s optimism. 

Later still, two Black characters debate the same question. Bernice, who lives next to the grocery store and went to school with Chona, reproaches her brother Fatty, the owner of a jook joint, for not attending Chona’s funeral. He replies that Chona was a nice lady, but “We don’t owe them. They don’t owe us.” Bernice responds by invoking their childhood: “It wasn’t no them and us. It was we. We was together on this Hill.” But Fatty is adamant: “Stop tricking yourself, sis. Them days is gone. The Jews round here now, they wanna be in the big room with the white folks. All they gotta do is walk in the room and hang their hat on the rack. Let me and you try that. See what happens.” 

The issue is not resolved, but the rescue plot, in which Jews and Blacks work together as partners, points to The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store as a plea for Black-Jewish dialogue and community—all the more important in the present day, when relations between Blacks and Jews are often frayed. In the novel, years after Chona’s death, Moshe and his wealthy cousin pay tribute to her by founding a humane camp for handicapped children, just like the one in which James McBride himself worked for several summers as a counselor. He tells us in the Acknowledgments that that camp changed his life. The novel is dedicated to Sy Friend, the White, gay Jewish man who ran it and about whom McBride writes that he has never met a “more brilliant, compassionate person.” 

That this novel has been taken up by so many Jewish as well as Black readers is a reason for rejoicing, and it suggests a hunger for that kind of unity. But we have a way to go before that wish is realized. 

McBride has stated in book talks that he doesn’t “editorialize” in his novels but lets readers form their own judgment. There are two places in this novel, however, where the narrator we left behind in chapter one seems to suddenly speak in the present, denouncing the “patriotic fluff” and “mental junk” that’s fed to the populace in place of history, as well as the bogus mythology that allows the unchecked proliferation of guns in today’s America. When Laurie Muchnick of Kirkus Review asked him about these editorializing passages in an interview, McBride (who is a professional saxophonist as well as a writer) replied that “in every jazz solo there’s a place where you tell the audience, This is what I’m really saying…Did they [the earlier generation he writes about] work that hard so you could sit there and not vote and let some antisemitic son of a you-know-what claim this nation for his own? But you can’t say that to people because it turns them off. You have to figure out a way to make them take their medicine, to present truth and justice in a way that makes you feel good about doing it.”

Dickens’s biographer, Claire Tomalin, wrote about him that “He could make people laugh and cry, and arouse anger, and he meant to amuse and to make the world a better place.” I’m happy that writers like that still exist, and that James McBride is one of them.

Susan Rubin Suleiman is professor emerita of French and comparative literature at Harvard. Her memoir Daughter of History: Traces of an Immigrant Girlhood was a 2024 National Jewish Book Award finalist. 

2 thoughts on “A Vision of Decency and Hope: Why James McBride Is Today’s Charles Dickens

  1. Ted Hochstadt says:

    I greatly enjoyed reading the book and am eagerly awaiting a film version.

    1. My wife is currently reading this novel which evokes mybown experience as a Ewish veteran of the Civil Rights battle as I document in my recent book The Black Athlete As Herom As soon as Eieen finishes this masterful novel, I will follow her lead.

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