James McBride’s Latest Is a Murder Mystery Inside a Great American Novel



A few weeks ago, around the same time I was working on this review, I visited the Guggenheim with my fiancé. The exhibition on display as we trekked up the museum’s famous spiral was “Measuring Infinity,” a marvelous retrospective on the work of the great Venezuelan artist Gego. A German Jew who fled Nazi persecution in Europe, Gego arrived in Venezuela in 1939 and went on to become one of the most important artists to emerge from Latin America in the 20th century. Her work speaks to a deep curiosity about the interrelation of shapes, things and the dimensions created by those relationships.

Maybe it was her obsession with structure and connectivity (which for me screams community), or maybe it was my awe as I stood in the middle of Gego’s wire galaxy of lines and points, but whatever it was, something prompted me to turn to my fiancé and say, “The book I’m reading is just like this.” To which he replied, “Well, it must be incredible then, too.” And he was absolutely right. “The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store,” the latest novel from the best-selling, National Book Award-winning author James McBride, moves with the precision, magnitude and necessary messiness of some of Gego’s most inspired structures.

The book is a murder mystery locked inside a Great American Novel. The story opens in 1972, with the discovery of a skeleton buried in a well in Pottstown, Pa. The identity of the corpse is unknown but the few clues found (a belt buckle, a pendant and a mezuza) lead authorities to question the only Jewish man remaining from the town’s formerly vibrant Jewish community. However, instead of a simple whodunit, the novel leaves the bones behind and swings back to the 1920s and ’30s, to Chicken Hill, the neighborhood in Pottstown where Jewish, Black and immigrant folks make their homes. It’s a community of people bonded together by the links of love and duty, and it’s here that McBride’s epic tale truly begins.

We first meet Moshe Ludlow, a Romanian Jew who owns the local theater and dance hall, and his wife, Chona, a headstrong, mighty-hearted American-born Jew who operates the grocery store for which the book is named. The grocery costs Moshe and Chona more money than it makes because Chona allows many of Chicken Hill’s Black and European immigrant residents to take out lines of credit that she never asks them to make due on. As the story sets off, we watch Moshe and Chona observe their ever-diversifying community from their respective posts: Moshe watching via his theater and an increasingly sick Chona from the store.


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