Reviewed by Catherine K. Arveseth
If you loved Tuesdays with Morrie, you will delight in Mitch Albom’s latest publication, The Five People you Meet in Heaven. It is a wisely poetic tale that whisks you into magical places, rich with lessons of hope. For me, it resurrected the fading ideal that all humanity is connected. Although not a Christmas story by setting, the fable beams with the spirit of Christ, stirring emotions of love and sacrifice for our fellow men. It is about forgiveness, purpose and people.
Albom dedicates the book to his uncle, Edward Beitchman, who “gave him his first concept of heaven.” Albom writes, “Every year around the Thanksgiving table, [Eddie] spoke of a night in the hospital when he awoke to see the souls of his departed loved ones sitting on the edge of the bed, waiting for him. I never forgot that story. And I never forgot him.”
We gather that Albom was deeply moved by his uncle’s experience, out of which evolved this work. And so he launches us into the life of his main character, Eddie. Eddie is the Head of Maintenance at an Amusement Park. To the children, he is known as “the ride man at Ruby Pier”. Eddie is 83 years old. He has worked at Ruby Pier all his life, watching the rides evolve and accelerate, from “Lollipop Swings” to “The Vortex”. Some things remain the same – the taffy stand, the smell of cotton candy smeared into the pavement, the park name, and his love for the children who frequent it. Eddie is tired as he reflects on his past, wondering if he has accomplished anything of worth in his life. Sporting a cane, he makes his way around the park, carefully checking all the rides to ensure they are working safely. On this day, he takes time to craft an “animal” out of pipe cleaners he keeps in his pocket for a small girl. This is his existence, a meager one – one that the world would look on as unimportant – an old man, undervalued and alone.
In minutes, Eddie will die in an attempt to save the life of the little girl with the pipe cleaner rabbit who is unsuspectingly seated under a rapidly falling cart. Albom begins, “This is a story about a man named Eddie and it begins at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun. It might seem strange to start a story with an ending. But all endings are also beginnings. We just don’t know it at the time.” (1)
In the first chapter, ironically titled “The End”, Albom offers us this metaphor: “Sometimes stories meet at the corners, and sometimes they cover one another completely, like stones beneath a river.” (10) As we are shuttled into heaven with Eddie and then back through his life, we see that Albom’s stories gracefully cover one another with echoes, repeating themes and objects of memory.
Albom acknowledges that everyone has an idea of heaven, as do most religions, and all ideas should be respected. The version he represents in this book is his “guess”, a “wish” he says, that his uncle, and others like him who felt unimportant on earth, will realize how much they mattered and how they were loved.
Eddie enters heaven. “The sky was a misty pumpkin shade, then a deep turquoise, then a bright lime. Eddie was floating, and his arms were still extended…the tower cart was falling. He remembered that. The little girl – Amy? Annie? – she was crying. He remembered that. He remembered lunging. He remembered hitting the platform. He felt her two small hands in his. Then what? Did I save her?” (21)
A journey through heaven awaits Eddie. Along this journey he will meet five people. That’s how it works. Everyone meets five people – five people who were part of your life. These people provide explanations that make all the difference. Eddie’s first person explains, “I am your first person, Edward…I came here to wait for you, to stand in your line, to tell you my story, which becomes part of yours. There will be others for you too…they all crossed your path before they died. And they altered it forever.” (35)
Albom is a master storyteller. His is the type of colorful, tangible writing that keeps you racing forward to the next chapter, thinking and feeling along the way. In retrospect, you wonder if you had time to stop and catch your breath. In The Five People You Meet in Heaven, we hear echoes of the classics. For me, it conjured reminiscences of Dicken’s timeless tale, A Christmas Carol. Maybe it’s just the season – but Albom accomplishes the same wondrous feat as Dickens. He intertwines the past, present and future of one individual, while causing his readers to examine their own past, present and future – the words they said to a stranger, the anger they couldn’t discard, the what ifs or should-have beens. In the end, however, the magic works. The readers heave that sigh of relief that comes with reconciliation and the turning of a heart. For Eddie, his reckoning comes in the realization that his life was often what it should have been. He didn’t make perfect choices, but more often than he realized, he was in the right place at the right time.
Eddie’s “first person” further explains, “There are no random acts…we are all connected…you can no more separate one life from another than you can separate a breeze from the wind…the human spirit knows, deep down, that all lives intersect. That death doesn’t just take someone, it misses someone else, and in the small distance between being taken and being missed, lives are changed…there is a balance to it all. One withers, another grows. Birth and death are part of a whole.” (48)
Other lessons like this grace Albom’s story, including an unexpected ending that will grab at your heart. At times you are uncomfortable, at times you smile, at times you can’t hold back the swelling of emotion. The Five People You Meet in Heaven would make a perfect Christmas gift, the kind of book you could read in one day, after presents are opened and festivities have come to a quiet lull. How worthwhile it is to remember, “Strangers…are just family you have yet to come to know.” (49)
I believe Albom’s book will become a timeless tale of its own. I look forward to the next. He has left us wondering whose hands we have touched, and felt, and pressed into our own. “Each affects the other and the other affects the next, and the world is full of stories, but the stories are all one.” (196)