Skip to main content

In 1972, construction workers at a new housing development in Pottstown, Penn., discover a human skeleton, raising questions for law enforcement—to whom did the skeleton belong and why was it buried where it was found? When the police investigate, they question an elderly Jewish man named Malachi who lives at the site of the old synagogue on Chicken Hill.

Forty-seven years earlier, the derelict neighborhood on Chicken Hill, where immigrant Jews and African Americans live shoulder to shoulder, sharing their miseries, joys, struggles for survival, and secrets, finds its center in the Heaven &Earth Grocery Store, run by a Jewish couple, Moshe and Chona Ludlow.

An American-born Bulgarian, Chona, who was crippled as a child by polio, is unafraid to speak her mind and seek justice. In a society that favors white people, who use their advantages to maneuver for racial purity and discriminate against—at times openly, at other times disguised in civility—Jews, African Americans, immigrants, and people with physical and mental limitations, Chona affirms that “America is here” on Chicken Hill, not just where white people live.

Motivated by what the Talmud teaches—“we must serve”—Chona compels Moshe to open his dance theater to African Americans in a time when integration is mostly unheard of, and she “extended so much credit to the colored families of Chicken Hill that neither she nor they had any idea of who owed what. … They saw her not as a neighbor but as an artery to freedom.” They remember her as a teen enjoying her friendship with an African American girl, proof that people can get along no matter the circumstances.

Chicken Hill is also home to 12-year-old Dodo, an intelligent, quick boy who became deaf after an accident. When Dodo’s mother dies, state officials come looking for him to confine him to the Pennhurst State Hospital for the Insane and Feeble-Minded. As the residents of Chicken Hill join forces to protect Dodo, long-held loyalties are put to the test and simmering injustices and past misunderstandings surface.

When a shocking incident occurs in the Heaven &Earth Grocery Store, Chona and Dodo’s lives are forever altered, as are those of others in the neighborhood.

Author James McBride’s novel for adults, which includes some course language, sexual innuendo, and violence, is a gripping, page-turner replete with expertly drawn characters. McBride’s scathing dissection of the failure of white Christians—some of whom were involved in the Ku Klux Klan—to seek justice for all people, along with his critique of the myth of the American dream inform his narrative. The novel, despite dealing with harsh realities, ends on a note of satisfied justice and renewal in a place where family, community, and love are restored and the heavenly vision of “the land where the lame walked and the blind could see” is a solid hope. (Riverhead Books)

We Are Counting on You

The Banner is more than a magazine; it’s a ministry that impacts lives and connects us all. Your gift helps provide this important denominational gathering space for every person and family in the CRC.

Give Now