The Five People You Meet in Heaven tells the story of Eddie, a bitter, crotchety, nondescript maintenance man for a carnival at the fictional Ruby Pier. He feels he has wasted his life in a dead-end job that "required no more brains than washing a dish." On his eighty-third birthday, he dies trying to save a little girl from a runaway cart on a ride. His last memory is of small hands within his own, but Eddie does not know if he was able to save the child. The next thing he knows, he is in a heaven that is like nothing he has ever imagined. On his way to his final rest, he will meet five seemingly random people who will help him understand the meaning of his life on earth.
The five people Eddie meets include the Blue Man, a character from his childhood who was an unhappy member of the carnival freak show; the Captain, his commanding officer when he fought in the Philippines during the war; Ruby, a woman who lived before his time and for whom his workplace was named; Marguerite, the beloved wife who had been taken from him far too soon; and Tala, a Filipino child he had unknowingly killed in the midst of a firefight during his deployment overseas. From each of these people, Eddie learns a lesson that brings him to an understanding of his own life's significance. The Blue Man, whose death Eddie inadvertently caused by the simple act of chasing a ball into the street as a young boy, teaches him that everyone is connected and that no life is a waste. The Captain, who inflicted a crippling leg injury on Eddie but saved his life in doing so, helps him see that sacrifice is worth aspiring to and that in every loss there is gain. Ruby shows Eddie that people who lived before one's lifetime can affect one's life as profoundly as contemporaries can and that some of his own actions had an effect on people not yet born; she also draws him to an understanding of the father who could not love him, which in turn allows him to forgive. Marguerite, Eddie's cherished wife, shows him proof that love lasts forever. Tala, in addition to revealing to Eddie that he did save the life of the child for whom he died, helps him realize that "the simple, mundane things [he] had done in his life" made all the difference to a host of others whom he never even knew. In the end, Eddie finds peace, having learned the secret of heaven:
Each affects the other and the other affects the next, and the world is full of stories, but the stories are all one.
Published in 2003, Mitch Albom's The Five People You Meet in Heaven achieved the number-one spot on The New York Times Bestsellers list in October of that year and was a Main Selection of the Book-of-the-Month Club. Critics praise the book for its simple but profound rendering and have compared it in structure and content to Charles Dickens's A Christmas Carol. In 2004, the book was made into a full-length motion picture for television. Starring John Voigt as the main character, the movie chronicles Eddie's journey after death with uncommon beauty and sensitivity, and it communicates effectively the same wisdom and inspiration as the book.