Book columnist Hannah Srour-Zackon reviews two recent bestsellers that combine history with a Jewish perspective

Mitch Albom and James McBride are authors who stand as poignant testaments to the enduring power of storytelling. Their respective book sales speak to the ability of their stories to resonate with audiences worldwide, without even needing to account for their numerous accolades. Moreover, both have strong Jewish ties which have influenced some of their previous works, and have certainly influenced their most recent releases. Though they take place in very different settings, both novels masterfully weave historical elements and Jewish perspectives.

The Little Liar by Mitch Albom (HarperCollins)

This gripping narrative revolves around a quartet of characters intricately linked in a complex dance between truth and deception, narrated by Truth itself.

Set in Salonika, Greece, on the eve of the Holocaust, we meet the titular ‘little liar’, 11-year-old Nico Krispis, a Jewish boy who at the novel’s outset seems to embody absolute truth; his older brother Sebastian, who finds himself often overshadowed by Nico’s purity; 11-year Fannie, Nico’s classmate and the object of Sebastian’s affections; and the psychopathic Nazi officer Udo Graf, tasked with orchestrating the deportation of Salonika’s Jews.

Following the Nazi invasion of Greece, Nico’s life takes a harrowing turn. Graf manipulates his innocence, enlisting him to spread a falsehood about the fate awaiting his coreligionists as the deportation process begins. When Nico becomes aware of the deception, he undergoes a profound transformation, becoming a pathological liar tormented by guilt, unable to face the results of his actions during the Holocaust.

The four protagonists’ lives of in the wake of the Holocaust reflect the multifaceted nature of truth. Sebastian, driven by the relentless pursuit of truth, sacrifices much in its name. Udo Graf, on the other hand, embodies the malevolent manipulation of truth for personal gain. Fannie, meanwhile, is entrusted with a mission to share the truth of Salonika’s Jewish community.  And, finally, Nico lives in complete denial of the truth, annihilating his sense of self.

Albom’s choice to spotlight Greek Jewry, particularly the lesser-told story of Salonika’s Jewish community, adds a poignant layer to the novel. He skillfully integrates historical elements, shedding light on the catastrophic impact of the Holocaust on the city’s Jews. In doing so, Albom emphasizes the importance of preserving the memory of communities often overlooked in historical narratives.

The Little Liar is a testament to Albom’s distinctive style, balancing sensitivity with inspiration. The narrative manages to navigate the weighty subject matter of the Holocaust with grace, capturing the essence of its characters while delivering a powerful message about the enduring impact of one’s choices, and the significance of truth in defining and shaping lives and memory.

The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store by James McBride (Riverhead)

This novel begins with a mystery: in 1970s Pottstown, Penn., a skeleton is found in a well during routine construction work. How it got there is, pointedly, the shared ‘skeleton-in-the-closet’ of the Chicken Hill neighbourhood’s Jewish and African-American residents.

Back in 1936, Moshe Ludlow is the proprietor of the town’s racially integrated theatre. His wife Chona, daughter of the community’s rabbi, owns the Heaven & Earth Grocery Store—an institution at the heart of the neighbourhood’s poor, immigrant, and working-class population. With the store acting as the primary location of overlap between the novel’s various characters, McBride delves into the struggles of communities at society’s margins and the bonds they form with one another.

The childless Chona is a righteous figure beloved by the neighbourhood. Time and again she shows her devotion to Chicken Hill’s various communities, particularly the African-American population and union laborers. The community shows her and her husband the same love in return, especially when she begins a long battle with a mysterious illness.

The novel’s main drama, however, centres on Dodo, an African-American boy rendered deaf after a tragic accident which took his mother’s life. Taken in by his aunt Addie and uncle Nate Timblin—who works closely with Chona’s husband—Dodo’s medical condition leaves him constantly under threat of institutionalization. Chona, at Nate’s request, opens her home as a place of refuge to the boy.

As state officials continue to close in on Dodo, the residents of Chicken Hill become increasingly determined to protect him, coming together in moving ways motivated by unspoken bonds.

Set against the complex dynamics of the immigrant community, McBride skillfully captures the nuances of life for those on the margins of American society in the 1930s. The novel has already garnered widespread acclaim, including a place on former President Barack Obama’s list of favourite books of 2023.

In a time marked by division, The Heaven & Earth Grocery Store serves as a humble reminder of the forces that bind us together—community, love, and resilience.

Hannah Srour-Zackon is the archivist at Shaar Hashomayim in Montreal, and she can be followed on X at @srour_hannah.