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I love the books of James McBride.

It started with The Good Lord Bird (2013), the umpteenth telling of the story of John Brown but the first coming from the point of view of a cross-dressing, biracial 12-year-old. How the author came up with that angle is a wonder, but it yields unique insight into the American landscape of the 1850s; into the pressures, paradoxes, follies, and outrages of race, then and now; and into the character of the prophetic freedom-fighter—or is it terrorist?—himself.

We watch Henry, rescued from slavery in Bleeding, Kansas, develop greater comprehension of Brown and of himself as he accompanies this terrible Quixote on a quest to raise funds and comrades for a lightning strike that will trigger insurrection across the South. While the eventual raid on Harper’s Ferry is a fiasco, Henry’s eyes are finally opened as he observes Brown in prison awaiting the martyrdom that will be his finest, and most effective, hour. A heavy tale, to be sure, but it is saved from preachiness and stereotype via Henry’s unique dialect and perfectly realized character. The novel deservedly won the National Book Award.


Then I retired, taught abroad for a couple years, and lost touch with McBride, until Covid-19 came along. With libraries and bookstore closed, I panicked until I figured out how to tap audio books. Reader, my habits changed forever. Now, instead of settling in with a hard copy for an hour’s reading at day’s end, I set off on long daily walks with ear buds in place and book booted up. That saved my sanity then and remains my refuge today. The crucial piece in the transition was McBride’s Deacon King Kong, released in March 2020 just when things locked down, and bearing a feast of voices made for listening.  

Such a cast of characters! Sportcoat, Deacon King Kong himself, who brews up hooch with his buddy Hot Sausage in the boiler room of Brooklyn’s Causeway Projects housing complex. Tommy Elefante, a clean smuggler, and Joe Peck, a dirty one. Potts Mullen, the local white cop, and Sister Gee, Black matron and spiritual center of the Five Ends Church; the two fall in love. There’s drug-dealing and vigilante justice and a search for buried treasure. Most of all, there’s Sportcoat’s search for his own buried treasure, his wife Hettie, who committed suicide because of his unrepentant alcoholism and who speaks to him from the dead as he tries to sort out his life.  

There is no end of clichés lurking here but McBride avoids every one of them. The variety of voices helps immensely. We should know that “not all Black people are the same,” but McBride embodies the point in a spectrum of accents Carolinian, Virginian, and Deep Southern, with an extra helping of Brooklyn gangster-ese, White and Black. Throw in Italian, Irish, and Hispanic ethnicities and your audio profile of urban America is complete. None of the cast, apart from Sister Gee, is unsullied of character; none, apart from Joe Peck, beyond redemption.


McBride’s breakout book was The Color of Water (1995), in which autobiographical chapters alternate with a memoir of his mother, Ruth Shilsky McBride Jordan. Born in Poland, Ruth is brought to America as a two-year-old by a longsuffering mother and an abusive wannabe rabbi father. The latter settles into storekeeping in Suffolk, Virginia, where he daily exploits his Black customers. Ruth runs away from home, pregnant, and bumps along fitfully with some callous relatives in New York City until she meets and marries Dennis McBride, a Black preacher. She finds true family in his church and becomes a devout Christian. She and Dennis also become parents to eight children.

James is the last, born just after Dennis has died of cancer. After some desperate times, Ruth marries again, to Hunter Jordan, with whom she has four more children. Some of McBride’s most memorable passages relate the controlled chaos of this home in vivid sound and color. Ruth’s will and determination are more than equal to the challenge, not least in seeing to it that her children all go to the best available schools. James poignantly remembers her 4’ 10” frame waiting on the corner amid some imposing figures, including a Black Panther, to collect the kids from the bus and usher them home—to homework and housework. All twelve of Ruth’s children eventually graduate from college and take up professional careers. They re-gather annually to celebrate her birthday.


James’s own path is rocky after his loving stepfather dies, tempting him toward the drug hustle until Chicken Man, a veteran of that scene, guides him to a different path. That turns out to be Oberlin, successful tours as a jazz musician, and his own commitment to the Christian faith. He goes in search of his white Jewish past which had been closed to him by that side’s renunciation of Ruth upon her Christian marriage. His mother had always tried to quash questions of race and religion; James now takes them straight on.

The alternating current of the narrative—a Ruth chapter, then a James chapter—nicely mirrors the dualities of McBride’s own course and character: musician and writer, Black and White, Jewish and Christian. The book is readable enough to have spent two years on bestseller lists, to win translation into sixteen languages, and to sell (as of 2020) 1.5 million copies. Yet it is deft enough to carry a complex vision. Color marks everything on the American social scene and can shape the human soul. Still, as Ruth says, “God is the color of water,” baptizing the world with a grace that can bear anyone who will receive it through their most trying circumstances.  


And now comes The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store (2023) to big sales and rave reviews—again, well deserved. The story centers on the eponymous shop atop Chicken Hill in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, once the domain of Jewish immigrants until they moved up and Blacks moved in. Chona Ludlow, proprietor of the store, represents the Jewish side of McBride’s heritage. She (like his grandmother) is slightly crippled and (unlike his grandfather) an unfailing source of generosity and hospitality to all in need. She adamantly refuses toleave the neighborhood. Chona and her husband Moshe, who runs the dancehall in town (see jazz musician), adopt a young deaf orphan boy, Dodo, and try to keep him from capture and consignment to the hellhole that is Pennsylvania’s Pennhurst Asylum.

(Spoiler alert.) They fail, but then succeed, through a series of machinations that calls upon another stellar slate of characters. Fatty Davis, his sister Bernice, and his friend Big Soap. Miggy Fludd, the seer of Hemlock Row where live the Blacks who do not share Chicken Hill’s upward aspirations. Baggs, Rusty, Irv and Marv Skrupskelis. Isaac Ludlow, Moshe’s rich big-city brother and fellow refugee from Romania. Nate and Addie Timblin, Moshe’s assistants and the conscience of Chicken Hill. Doc Earl Roberts and Carl Boydkinses, the White powers in town who lead the annual Ku Klux Klan parade. Snooks, the Black pastor; Karl Feldman, the bumbling rabbi; the Son of Man, Pennhurst’s demon in the flesh; and Monkey Pants, Dodo’s savior. On and on roll the characters, recognizable types but always more than types, richly individuated.


With all (or because) of McBride’s inventive imagination, the book is so real. The hijinks, scams, strife, and hilarity of little people trying to get by, yet sometimes reaching high. Hidden pasts, haunting pain. Salvation in the lowest places, unlikely forgiveness, absurd providential justice. First and last, humanity showing through.

The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store is dedicated to “Sy Friend, who taught us all the meaning of Tikkun Olam,” “the repairing of the world.” A fitting balance to the “Thanks and Acknowledgements” that close McBride first book, where he writes: “My mother and I would like to thank our Lord Jesus Christ for His love and faithfulness to all generations.” (297) We are blessed to have so gifted a writer make so good on that debt.

James Bratt

James Bratt is professor of history emeritus at Calvin College, specializing in American religious history and especially the connections between religion and politics. Starting in Fall 2016 he took a break from blogging on The Twelve to teach in China and on the Semester at Sea, which venues afforded him some welcome distance from the USA’s descent into its current mortal illness. But now he’s back in the States, looking for hope. His most recent book (which he edited and completed for the late John Woolverton) is  “A Christian and a Democrat”: Religion in the Life and Leadership of Franklin Delano Roosevelt.


  • Daniel Meeter says:

    As a child of Brooklyn myself, a white kid from Black Brooklyn, who knew the inside of the “projects” from childhood, the book Deacon King Kong was a homecoming feast that opened new windows and taught me what I did not know. Jim Bratt was the one who told me to read it. So Heaven and Earth is waiting for me now at home. Thanks for this review, and may other readers enter McBride’s rich and blessed world

  • Jan Zuidema says:

    Having read The Good Lord Bird and Deacon, I just opened The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store this morning and could hardly pull my eyes away to get on with the day. Then, here is your column. Such an immensely gifted writer who pulls one in from the first page with stories that are always about people, God, spirits, and their unique struggles with self, the world, others, and God. Thanks for intoducing the others that I need to read as well as the coincidence of this column this morning.

  • Keith Mannes says:


  • Sherri Meyer-Veen says:

    I too really enjoyed both Deacon King Kong, at the recommendation of our NBTS President Dr. McCreary, and then went on to read Heaven and Earth Grocery. While sometimes it is easy to get characters confused, I find his books increase my empathy, which is always a good thing. I too read through “listening” to the books, and many times my children or husband would enter while I am crying away listening and ask, “WHAT is this?”. One of such moments was when Chonna was bartering with the kids, allowing them to pay with marbles, and her mysteriously always wanting the color they didn’t have so the kids would take the food and come back again later to presumably get more food and give her the “correct” color marble… the imagery is often SO BEAUTIFUL in his books on all the levels. Sickening and horrifying at times, and redeeming and beautiful at others. Thanks for sharing your perspective.

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