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James McBride's new novel explores Black and Jewish affection, tensions in the 1930s

SCOTT DETROW, HOST:

James McBride's new novel, "The Heaven And Earth Grocery Store," is a lot of things. It's, at the very beginning, a bit of a whodunit. It's also a heist story and a love story, but it's mostly a close look at a community in Pottstown, Penn. At the heart of that community is a couple, Moshe and Chona, Jewish immigrants who live in a poor neighborhood called Chicken Hill.

JAMES MCBRIDE: It was a perfect setting for when you put these people of different cultures in a place and see what happens. And so Chicken Hill was the part of town where Blacks lived, Jews lived, white people like - I don't know - Italians and Greeks and Irish who couldn't afford any better lived. And they all pretty much got along.

DETROW: They all get along for the most part in McBride's 1930 setting. But there's also a deep awareness among the main characters of their differences, the lines that sometimes can't be crossed.

MCBRIDE: The ability to just sort of accept the humanity of other people was something I've always tried to use in my work, and I've always found it to be the most compelling element in terms of narrative drive. And so Chicken Hill was the perfect place to place this story.

DETROW: That story is about a boy named Dodo who has special needs. The state is trying to institutionalize him, and the community has to act together in order to protect him. But that is easier said than done. I asked McBride how he landed on this plot.

MCBRIDE: I was always fascinated with the idea about how these kids who are, quote-unquote, "disabled" end up in insane asylums in the early times, in the '20s, '30s, '40s and '50s and so forth. The idea of the state trying to put this deaf boy into Pennhurst, which was just a horrible place, is really based on reality. And so it wasn't hard to introduce that idea into my head, but it was hard to find a way to lay that conflict at the feet of the characters who - you know, who - no one wants to challenge, you know, a giant state institution...

DETROW: Yeah.

MCBRIDE: ...Like Pennhurst. Or it'd be like challenging the - you know, the federal penal system or something.

DETROW: Yeah. And this is the character Dodo, who's deaf, and they're protecting him. Chona steps in to protect him as well. And Chona is just such a remarkable character. And I was hoping you could you could tell us a little bit about her and how you thought about her and how you thought her up. And I was also hoping - do you have a copy of the book in front of you, by any chance?

MCBRIDE: Yeah.

DETROW: I was hoping you could read a passage about Chona that really, I thought, made her just jump out and come alive to me, if you don't mind.

MCBRIDE: OK.

DETROW: It was on page 23 of the hardcover.

MCBRIDE: (Reading) Chona's years of stirring butter, sorting vegetables and reading in the back room of The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store had given her time to consider. She read everything as a child - comics, detective books. And by the time she became a young wife, she'd evolved into reading about socialism and unions. She subscribed to Jewish newspapers, publications in Hebrew and books on Jewish life, some from Europe. She knew more Hebrew than any Jewish woman in town. She could recite the Talmud better than most of the men in shul. Instead of sitting with the women in the balcony, she insisted on davening downstairs with the men, claiming her bad foot prevented her from climbing stairs.

Chona was a unique person. And in many ways, she was modeled after my own mother and my grandmother because my mother was Jewish, raised in an Orthodox Jewish home in Suffolk, Va., and worked in her family's store. And her...

DETROW: Yeah, we were wondering if there was a connection there. Yeah.

MCBRIDE: Oh, absolutely. I mean, my grandmother lived a very difficult life. You know, she wasn't - she had a terrible marriage, and her husband was not a very good person. So - and she died really - she lost a lot before she died. You know, my mother ran away from home. And my uncle - he ran away from home when he was 15. He joined the army and was killed in World War II. And so I wanted my grandmother to have a better life. So I put her on the page and made her loved. So a lot of this character is based on my mother and my grandmother and the kinds of things that I learned from my mother about Jewish life and especially during that period.

DETROW: Yeah. There's such a sense of the history of these places. You write about Pottstown. This jumped out to me because I lived and worked in this part of the world for a while. But, you know, the other nearby cities - Reading, Philadelphia - almost are characters themselves, the way that people in Pottstown talk about people from those cities, going to those cities. Do you have any ties to this part of the world, or is this just a lot of research that went into this?

MCBRIDE: Well, I lived in Philly. And, you know, I freelanced for the Philadelphia Inquirer back when it was the best paper in the country.

DETROW: Yeah.

MCBRIDE: So I know the kind of writing talent - the kind of talent that Pennsylvania produces and the kind of - the wide variety of life and the wide variety of people that live there and also the kindness and goodness of the people of Pennsylvania - very nice people. I mean, Pennsylvania is a fascinating place. So I kind of wanted to just show, you know, that part of the country to readers and to let people experience the fact that this is the state where it all began. And also, I wanted to - I don't think people really know that much about Jewish life in America, you know, in the '30s and '40s. I think people have a lot of misconceptions and just a lack of understanding about how far Jewish people have had to come. That's not to say that other people haven't had a difficult time.

DETROW: Yeah.

MCBRIDE: But I think learning how these two groups and - you know, Blacks and Jews got together and worked to live together and got along has something to show us about how to live today.

DETROW: I enjoyed reading about Moshe and his cousin Isaac and their experience of just fleeing persecution in Eastern Europe, arriving in America with no money whatsoever and building up this network of regional theaters and being successful.

MCBRIDE: Well, that's - you know, that's based on real fact. And a lot of the theater owners were Romanians because they had nothing else. And so they could sing and dance, or they could get people together to sing and dance. The journey is always the same. It doesn't matter what the group is. You know, you find a way in, and then when you get in, you're in. But what you leave behind is - that's really the question. For African Americans, it's a little complicated because you get in, and then maybe you're not in. Or maybe you're half in. But it's still - the journey is the same. And our willingness or unwillingness to accept the great cultural riches that people bring here is really - you know, it's really going to determine our future. And if - obviously, having a grocery store is proof that if you open the door and let people dance the way they want to, great things will happen.

DETROW: That's author James McBride. His latest novel is "The Heaven And Earth Grocery Store." James McBride, thanks so much for talking to us.

MCBRIDE: Well, thank you. I appreciate you chatting with me.

(SOUNDBITE OF CHICK WEBB SONG, "I CAN'T DANCE (I GOT ANTS IN MY PANTS)") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.

NPR transcripts are created on a rush deadline by an NPR contractor. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Accuracy and availability may vary. The authoritative record of NPR’s programming is the audio record.

Linah Mohammad
Prior to joining NPR in 2022, Mohammad was a producer on The Washington Post's daily flagship podcast Post Reports, where her work was recognized by multiple awards. She was honored with a Peabody award for her work on an episode on the life of George Floyd.
Tinbete Ermyas
[Copyright 2024 NPR]
Scott Detrow is a White House correspondent for NPR and co-hosts the NPR Politics Podcast.