Is it Them Versus Us? Or Is it We?
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Everybody has loved this book! Barnes and Noble named it the Book of the Year. So did Amazon. James McBride also won the Kirkus Prize for Fiction with this book – garnering $50,000 in the process. And if you ever check to see what Barack Obama is reading, yep, it’s on the top of his list of favorite books for 2023 as well.
It’s a bit difficult, therefore, to say I did NOT love this book, though I did like it. It reminded me of two other novels I have enjoyed in the past – Olive Kitteridge and A Gentleman in Moscow. I know those are odd comparisons and I will explain in a bit, but first let me tell you the basic storyline in McBride’s book.
The book opens in 1972 when construction workers find skeletal remains buried in a well in a neighborhood called Chicken Hill in Pottstown, Pennsylvania. Since the skeleton has a mezuzah in hand, authorities go to the only Jewish person still living in Chicken Hill to question him. From there, the story goes back in time forty-seven years, taking us to an era when the area was home to many Jews, Black people, and immigrants.
Here we meet the star of the show, Chona Ludlow, a Jewish woman who owns the store mentioned in the title. Black or white, people of any nationality, everyone loves Chona. Why wouldn’t they? She lets many of Chicken Hill’s residents take out lines of credit and never asks them to pay up. The losses suffered at the market are made up for by her husband, Moshe’s, other enterprise, the All-American Dance Hall and Theater.
Chona and Moshe have helpers in their businesses. Addie is Chona’s helper, while Addie’s husband, Nate Timblin, is Moshe’s. The Timblins are Black. They have worked with the Ludlows forever. They are a trusted and highly valued part of these endeavors.
The novel takes off when we meet the Timblin’s orphaned nephew, Dodo, who is deaf. When the state of Pennsylvania searches for Dodo in order to institutionalize him, Nate asks the Ludlows to hide him instead. Though the Ludlows and Timblins work hard to keep Dodo safe, they ultimately fail and section one (of three) ends with Dodo’s capture by the state. The rest of the book finds many of Chicken Hill’s residents playing a part in trying to rescue Dodo.
In getting to the end of section one, McBride introduces the reader to many, many people in Chicken Hill. Naming some of them, we have:
- Irv and Marvin Skrupskelis (Lithuanian immigrants and shoe makers)
- Doc Roberts (a KKK member among other things)
- Isaac (Moshe’s cousin from Philadelphia)
- Son of Man (a guy who’s truly up to no good)
- Malachi (the Greatest Dancer in the World)
- Patty Millison (a.k.a. Newspaper, and then a.k.a. Paper)
- Big Soap (an Italian immigrant, a.k.a. Enzo Carissimi)
- Fatty Davis (a Black man, son of Shad Davis)
- Bernice Davis (Fatty’s sister)
- And Karl Feldman (a.k.a. Fertzel – which means “fart” in Yiddish)
I should mention, that McBride does a good job of reminding us who these people are after he gives us extensive information about them, then pauses their story, and then comes back to them. But still, there are a lot of characters to juggle.
Where this book reminded me of Olive Kittridge is that in both books, the individual chapters could be viewed as interconnected short stories all advancing the plot, though sometimes tangentially.
Where it reminded me of The Gentleman from Moscow is that both authors give a lot of information that seems trivial, but instead, they are setting tiny pieces in place for a big flurry of a finish.
Where it was its own unique book was in the strong message of community it provided as articulated in this lesson from Bernice to Fatty:
Fatty says, “What do we owe each other on this Hill, Bernice? We got nothing. Ain’t never gonna have nothing…Miss Chona, I looked in on her from time to time. But she had her own people to look after her. We don’t owe them. They don’t owe us.”
Bernice replies, “It wasn’t no them and us. It was we. We was together on this Hill.”
That togetherness of the Black, Jewish, and immigrant communities – in general and in trying to rescue Dodo – was what made this book so special. I rate it four stars out of five on that alone.
However, I’m still not sure I fully understand – or need to understand – or care to understand – who gets their water where in Chicken Hill. See if you feel the same way when you read the book.
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