Plough My Account Sign Out
My Account
    View Cart

    Subtotal: $

    glassy green background

    Disability in The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store

    As a deaf reader, I was drawn toward the portrayals of disability in James McBride’s blockbuster novel, though, as in life, the results are an uneven weave.

    By Sara Nović

    June 4, 2024

    1930s Pottstown, Pennsylvania, is home to a multicultural population: Jewish immigrants from Europe, black families of the Great Migration, and working-class Italians living together uptown, wary of the WASPs downtown. A kosher grocery store serves as a meeting place, newsstand, and safe haven until an act of violence changes everything.

    James McBride’s new novel includes multiple disabled characters, a rarity in literary fiction. As a deaf reader, I was drawn toward the portrayals of disability, and there is a lot to commend. Chona, though “crippled,” is intelligent, generous, and committed to her community. Chick Webb is a talented musician despite being a “hunchback.” The town doctor and proud Klansman Doc Roberts’s role as town villain adds nuance too; he is educated, a bigot, a doctor, an abuser, and his disability does not negate his humanness, even when that humanity is evil.

    Then there’s Dodo, a black, deaf twelve-year-old who lost his hearing in an accident three years before the narrative begins. His portrayal is a bit more uneven. Some of Dodo’s representation feels authentic – the way he notices vibration and very loud sounds, how his brain still enjoys music though he no longer hears it the way he used to. In other ways, he exhibits the standard tropes of deaf characters written by hearing people; though he’s only been deaf for a couple of years and has had no training or schooling, he is a magical lipreader.

    Dodo’s schooling presents the biggest plot hole – he has been sent by his aunt and uncle to live in hiding because the state is looking to institutionalize him, an orphan, at the Pennhurst Asylum. When that plan goes awry, Chicken Hill residents pull together to save him. Except – the state-run Pennsylvania Institution for the Deaf, an integrated school, was operating in Philadelphia at the time, and evidence suggests that black deaf students attended before the Civil War. Thomas Flowers, class of 1895, went on to become the first deaf man to graduate from Howard University.

    Should it matter, in fiction, if liberties are taken? Not if they’re a matter of pure fiction. But in a book that recreates the scenery of Pottstown and the surrounding Montgomery and Berks counties with painstaking realism, and includes the real-life musician Chick Webb, this sequence stands out, leaving the reader to wonder whether this was an oversight or a choice to make Dodo simply more plot vehicle than person.

    The times we are closest to Dodo’s perspective seem intended mostly to satiate the voyeuristic desire to see Pennhurst. We meet a cast of feces-throwing, pedophilic, mentally unwell men, as well as another teenage boy whom Dodo befriends, even as he bestows upon him the unfortunate nickname “Monkeypants” and spends the better part of a chapter perseverating on the way in which his limbs are “tangled up like pretzels” from spastic cerebral palsy.

    Such observations are unlikely to deter the average reader from what is ultimately a compelling novel, including some bright spots in representation of the multiply marginalized. But if the point of the novel is to demonstrate human ties that bind, characters must be fully human to be part of the tapestry. Perhaps this, too, is another kind of realism, if not in the facts of the narrative, then embedded into the book’s marrow – as is so often the case when it comes to disability inclusion and representation, the results are an uneven weave.

    Contributed By SaraNovic Sara Nović

    Sara Nović is the author of the New York Times bestseller True Biz, and the books Girl at War and America is Immigrants.

    Learn More
    You have ${x} free ${w} remaining. This is your last free article this month. We hope you've enjoyed your free articles. This article is reserved for subscribers.

      Already a subscriber? Sign in

    Try 3 months of unlimited access. Start your FREE TRIAL today. Cancel anytime.

    Start free trial now