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Likely Stories - The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store

As a kid, you could find me either writing my own stories or with my nose buried in one. I grew out of fairytales and fantasy magic, but a good book? Well, I never grew out of that. I'm Emma Weidmann, the Arts and Life Editor at the Baylor Lariat, with this week’s edition of Likely Stories on KWBU.

“The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store” by James McBride is the winner of the 2023 National Book Award. Set in the diverse Chicken Hill neighborhood of Pottstown, Pennsylvania in the 1920s and ‘30s, “The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store” examines the intermingling and coexistence of different ethnic groups in the city during a time painted by tension and racism, reflecting McBride’s own biracial heritage. It’s all underscored by the mystery of human bones discovered in a well in the 1970s, decades after its main plot.

The book spends a good chunk of its time in the years following the Great Depression, focusing on Moshe and Chona, the Jewish couple who own the Heaven and Earth Grocery store, a space where the Chicken Hill community comes together despite their racial, cultural and religious differences that would otherwise divide them.

As the reader, you’re invited to an inside look at the characters’ thoughts as they behold each other, witnessing the bigotry of the Jewish characters against their black neighbors and the millennia-old prejudices the black, Christian inhabitants of the city hold against their Jewish community members that stretch back into Biblical times. The neighborhood is diverse, yes, but it isn’t always accepting.

Except for Chona. She is totally unconcerned with the color of her neighbors’ skin or their religion. A beautiful, bright and opinionated woman, the devout Chona is adored by her husband, Moshe, and she is sure to capture your sympathy as she navigates life-long disability and newly-onset chronic illness. You can’t help but love Chona for her radical and unabashed love for others and anxiously watch as she helps to hide her neighbor’s orphaned nephew, Dodo, from state agents who want to shut him in Pennhurst Asylum for his deafness.

For its empathetic and truthful depiction of several disabled characters — protagonists and antagonists alike — this book is a window into the field of disability studies and defies the negative representation of disabled people in the literature that comes before it.

While “The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store” is not a thriller, there are moments where you will feel your heart beating as if you had run a marathon. It’s a heartwarming and heart-wrenching work of contemporary fiction. So, for anyone who enjoys seeing how multiple family lines converge across decades, how old friends and enemies meet again, and using that information to sleuth out the truth that remains about the mysterious remains, “The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store” by James McBride deserves to be your next read.

 

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Emma Weidmann studies English Literature, Journalism and French at Baylor University and is an editor for the student newspaper, the Baylor Lariat. She has always been a reader and a lover of music. While as a journalist, she enjoys finding stories that are really happening, there’s still nothing like a good book. Her favorite genres are contemporary fiction and literary nonfiction.