mosaic background with the cover of The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store by James McBride

Disability Is Central to James McBride’s Latest Novel. Critics Are Missing That Point.

Has anyone else read James McBride’s latest novel, The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store?

I really liked it. I’ve read reviews, but I think the critics are missing a central point of the book. 

The story centers around a neighborhood in Pottstown, PA called Chicken Hill, where Jewish immigrants and Black families live side by side, largely peaceably. Racial and ethnic tensions are embodied in the town’s doctor, who is also the head of the local KKK. There’s a lot more to the story, but the doctor ensures that a local young boy named Dodo, who is deaf, becomes institutionalized by the state rather than cared for by his community. 

Ayana Mathis writes for the Atlantic about McBride’s hopeful integrationist vision.

Danez Smith, for the New York Times, writes,

“this novel is about connection [but McBride] also seems interested in what is unknowable or untranslatable across difference.”

Both mention the ways the Jewish and Black communities exist in solidarity and tension with one another. But they seem to miss the reality that the experience of disability is also central to this novel. 

McBride’s Afterword explains that the genesis of this book was his own time as a summer camp counselor with kids with disabilities. Dodo connects deeply with both the main Jewish character, Chona, but also with Nate, the Black man who ultimately seeks to rescue him from the institution. And then, when he is in traction and within a cage in the midst of countless abandoned bodies and souls, Dodo forges a connection and indeed a friendship with the boy in the next cage over. Dodo is the heartbeat of this novel because he demonstrates the power of human connection—across differences, amidst impossible hardship, no matter race or class or religion—to bring hope. 

As Smith wrote for the Times, this is a Great American Novel. And that greatness comes because of Dodo, who represents all the people who are marginalized and vulnerable as a result of the power structures of this nation, and who can nevertheless forge friendships, community, and networks of courageous care that can bring order out of chaos, light out of darkness, and bring heaven to earth.

More with Amy Julia:

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