Some books and movies, you enjoy the story once but soon forget it as others come along. The Five People You Meet In Heaven is a story to come back to more than once, as it shows something different to the reader at different ages and stages in life. I’ve just re-read the book, and if anything got more out of it the second time around.
This is a story about a man named Eddie, and it begins at the end, with Eddie dying in the sun.
Eddie was a widower, a war vet, a defeated old man who stepped into his father’s job and worked a dull routine life repairing rides at Ruby Pier, a seaside amusement park. He’d been “nowhere they didn’t send me carrying a rifle,” ended up in the same dead-end job his father had worked at the amusement park, and came creaking into old age as a lonely old man with “nothing to show but a clean kitchen” in the same small apartment where he grew up. What was the point?
On his 83rd birthday, Eddie dies in a desperately heroic attempt to save a young girl – but was he successful in saving her? Was there any purpose to his sacrifice? In fact, had there been any meaning to his life at all? Mitch Albom, author of the best-selling Tuesdays with Morrie, takes us with Eddie into the Afterlife in this bittersweet fable for grown-ups, in search of the answer.
All endings are also beginnings, we just don’t know it at the time.
Eddie discovers that Heaven is not the “paradise garden” that he – or, perhaps, we readers – had imagined, and as it has so often been portrayed in literature. In this tale, Heaven is not a final rest stop up among the clouds, but a place for coming to understand the purpose and shape of our lives.
In Heaven, Eddie meets five people whose paths in life crossed his own in some way. Some he knew in life; some not; all were affected by his time on earth and each has a lesson for him. Eddie’s apparent lack of choice in how his life turned out is revealed as a series of small decisions and happenstance actions, all more or less inevitable and all part of a greater pattern.
The world is full of stories, but the stories are all one.
This is a completely charming book – funny, sad, sweet, strange, and ultimately uplifting. It’s a book for anyone who has lost someone and is looking for meaning. It’s a book for anyone who doesn’t think they matter very much in the world and need to learn otherwise. It’s a book you’ll want to come back to again and again, through the years, as different ages will draw different lessons from the five people who bring Eddie his own after-life insights, depending on where in our own lives we are.
In 2004 the book The Five People You Meet In Heaven was made into a made-for-TV movie starring Jon Voight as Eddie, with Albom himself as the writer. Jeff Daniels plays the Blue Man from the old-time “freak show” of Eddie’s childhood, the first of the five people he meets in Heaven, who explains to him the “rules” of this experience. Ellen Burstyn is luminous as the elegant Ruby for whom Ruby Pier was created, and Michael Imperioli (from The Sopranos) plays Eddie’s old army captain in what is undoubtedly the pivotal story of the many threads interwoven in Eddie’s past.
The least among us, as The Five People You Meet In Heaven teaches, has a purpose in life. We are all intimately interconnected, and there is no way to know how our lives have impacted those of others – not until the final chapter unfolds.
At his best, Mitch Albom is a spellbinding storyteller, with the storyteller’s gift of knowing how much to say and how much to let his readers bring our own experiences to the story, to find our own answers and insights.
The Five People You Meet In Heaven was inspired by the author’s own uncle, Edward Beitchman, himself a World War II veteran and maintenance man at an amusement park. I like the idea that Uncle Eddie, in sharing his stories with his young nephew, unknowing contributed to creating this richly imaginative tale. One more connection, making all stories into one.
Photo: CNE ferris wheel silhouette by Andy Burgess [CC-BY-2.0] modified by author