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the heaven and earth grocery store by james mcbride.

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store Book Club Questions

Warning: There are some plot spoilers in these The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store discussion questions.

Why did the author choose the title, The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store?

Why did the author call the store The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store?

Why did the author call the theater the All-American Dance Hall and Theater?

What role does the All-American Dance Hall and Theater play in the plot and the novel’s themes?

Why do you think the author named the parts and chapters?

Did any of the part or chapter names stand out to you?

As the novel progressed, who did you think was the “skeleton” referred to in the first sentence?

Discuss the significance of the hurricane described in the first chapter.

Why is Chona sometimes called Chona and other times called Miss Chona?

Chona is described as an “artery to freedom.” (page 31 of the hardcover edition) Why was Chona so beloved by the community?

Describe Chicken Hill.

How was Chicken Hill unique?

How did Chicken Hill change?

Why did white people leave Chicken Hill?

Compare and contrast local business to big business in the novel.

Compare Chicken Hill to the big city nearby, Philadelphia, as portrayed in the novel.

Compare and contrast Chicken Hill to Hemlock Row.

Compare and contrast the North (of the United States) to the South, as portrayed in the novel.

How did you navigate reading about such a large number of characters?

Did you like the detailed character portraits woven throughout the novel?

What was the significance of the detailed character portraits woven throughout the novel?

The birth countries and/or ancestral homelands of the characters are often named. Why?

Discuss the significance of the characters’ nicknames.

Several famous names are mentioned in the novel. Why?

As the novel progresses, the reader learns of new connections the characters have to each other as well as the plot. What is the significance?

Why did Chona have a soft spot for Dodo?

Discuss Chona’s and Bernice’s friendship.

Did you know of Pennhurst or any place like it?

Discuss how and why Dodo was “institutionalized” at Pennhurst.

Do you think there was a reason why Dodo was placed in ward C-1 (“the worst” per page 302 of the hardcover edition)?

Would Dodo likely have had similar or different experiences today as a result of his accident and orphan status?

Both Chona and Doc Roberts had polio. What is the significance of this?

Why did Doc Roberts attempt rape?

Discuss Moshe’s and Malachi’s friendship.

Compare and contrast Moshe and his brother, Isaac.

Discuss gossip and communication in Chicken Hill.

Discuss communication between Dodo and Monkey Pants at Pennhurst.

Discuss Dodo’s and Monkey Pants’s friendship.

What is the significance of the name “Son of Man”?

Is there a reason both Chona and Monkey Pants had seizures?

Is there significance in the author’s choices as to which characters died and how they died?

How do the members of the Chicken Hill community treat their differences?

Discuss race as a theme in the novel.

Discuss religion as a theme in the novel.

Discuss disability as a theme in the novel.

What does water symbolize?

Why did the author utilize American holidays and parades in the plot?

Did this book teach you anything new about different people, times, and places?

How did the ending make you feel?

Discuss this passage: “The collective history of this sad troupe moving down the hospital corridor would become tiny blots in an American future that would one day scramble their proud histories like eggs, scattering them among the population while feeding mental junk to the populace in devices that would become as common and small as the hot dog that the dying woman thought she smelled; for in death, Chona had smelled not a hot dog but the future, a future in which devices that fit in one’s pocket and went zip, zap, and zilch delivered a danger far more seductive and powerful than any hot dog, a device that children of the future would clamor for and become addicted to, a device that fed them their oppression disguised as free thought.” (page 225 of the hardcover edition)

Printable PDF Discussion Questions

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Book Club Study Guide for The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store Novel

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store is one of the top books of the 21st century. It was an instant New York Times bestseller, a New York Times notable book, Barnes & Noble’s Book of the Year, and a best book of the year by NPR/Fresh Air, Washington Post, The New Yorker, and Time Magazine. It was also named one of Barack Obama’s favorite books of the year and was one of my favorite novels set in Philadelphia.

Plot Summary

In the suburban Philadelphia neighborhood of Pottstown, Pennsylvania, called Chicken Hill, in 1926, immigrant Jews and African Americans lived peacefully.

Then, a young, deaf, and orphaned boy named Dodo is institutionalized at a local asylum. His Jewish Chicken Hill neighbors and extended African American family members plan to rescue him.


Ending Explained

Warning: There are spoilers of the ending in this section.

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store ends with the killing of Doc Roberts in a case of mistaken identity. After being struck in the face, he falls into an open well.

Nate helps Dodo escape from Pennhurst and they move to South Carolina. Addie later joins them. Dodo changes his name to Nate Love II and lives a long and happy life. But, he never forgets Monkey Pants.

Moshe and Isaac found Camp Chona for children with disabilities.


Quick Review & Analysis

My Rating: ★★★★★

The plot of The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store is simple, but its themes are ripe for discussion in this love-affirming novel, from race to religion, disability, and the meaning of family and community.

This novel both breaks your heart and makes it swell. It’s not just a five-star read — it’s easily one of the best books I’ve read (ever) and it makes for an excellent book club selection.


Themes to Keep in Mind

  • Community
  • Love
  • Diversity
  • Kindness
  • Survival
  • Human rights
  • Disability rights
  • Justice

About the Author James McBride

about

James McBride is a popular African-American author, composer, and musician. He trained at Oberlin Conservatory of Music and Columbia University Graduate School of Journalism.

McBride received the 2013 National Book Award for Fiction for The Good Lord Bird, as well as the Anisfield-Wolf Book Award for Nonfiction. He was also awarded a 2015 National Humanities Medal by President Barack Obama. His novel Deacon King Kong was an Oprah’s Book Club pick.


Reading Tips & Book Club Ideas

TIPS

  • This book works best in print or digital format because it contains 100+ characters to follow.
  • This is a heavy book. A good book club idea would be to focus on disability rights, including volunteer work. Exploring the history of Pennhurst is another good learning opportunity for groups.
  • Book club food can include challah, which Malachi, the baker, made in the novel.

Frequently Asked Questions

What is the theme of The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store?

A tale of community and love, The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride focuses on the vibrant neighborhood of Chicken Hill in Pottstown, Pennsylvania, during the 1920s and 1930s. There, the Jewish family-owned store serves as a central gathering place for both food and fulfillment to its diverse community, particularly as the inhabitants seek to rescue a young Black boy from being institutionalized.

What happened to Dodo in The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store?

In The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James Mc Bride, Dodo escaped from Pennhurst and moved to South Carolina, where he grew up, started a family, and lived a long life.

Who was the skeleton in The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store?

The skeleton in The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James Mc Bride is Doc Roberts, who was killed in a case of mistaken identity, though some may call it divine intervention for his bad acts in the novel.

What happened to Monkey Pants in The Heaven and Earth Grocery Store?

After Son of Man assaults Dodo, Monkey Pants has a seizure then dies soon afterward.

Conclusion

The award-winning, bestselling book The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store offers an abundance of character and themes that are ripe for discussion, from race to religion, disability, and the meaning of family and community. Use these The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store book club questions for a meaningful discussion of this love-affirming book.

Keep the conversation going. Share your thoughts on this thought-provoking read or any questions you may have in the comments below.

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3 Comments

  1. I loved the audiobook of Heaven & Earth and plan to read the book one day. Question: Who is the person in the intro to the story?