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.
Eddie dies on his eighty-third birthday.
The arthritic, white-haired old man has been in charge of maintenance at the Ruby Pier amusement park for many, many years; his job is to “keep people safe.” Twelve minutes before his death, he runs into a little girl, about eight years old, who asks him to make her something out of the pipe cleaners he keeps in his pocket to entertain the children. Eddie makes her a rabbit; she thanks him and skips off happily.
A few minutes later, a cry of alarm rises from the carnival crowd. A cable on Freddy’s Free Fall is unraveling, and as a cart at the top plummets to earth, Eddie sees the little girl sprawled helplessly beneath it, where she has been knocked by the jostling spectators. Mindless of his own safety, Eddie lunges toward her. Reaching out his arms, he feels small hands in his own, “a stunning impact...then, nothing.”
The next thing Eddie knows, he is floating over a vast sea; there is no fear, only silence. When he fully awakens, he feels wonderful and realizes that he is young again, at the Ruby Pier of his childhood. Eddie is inexplicably drawn to the freak show, where he meets a man whose skin is blue. The Blue Man explains that there are “five people you meet in heaven” who have been chosen to help you understand your life on earth. The Blue Man is Eddie’s first person; conversely, Eddie is the Blue Man’s second person. Seized by curiosity, Eddie asks, “What...killed...you?” and the Blue Man responds, “You did.”
The Blue Man had been old and in poor health. One evening, he had been driving down a road when a young boy ran out in his path, chasing a ball. The Blue Man was able to avoid the child by slamming on the brakes, but the adrenaline coursing through his body triggered a heart attack. Shortly thereafter, he died. The child had been Eddie, who is horrified now to learn of the unintended consequences of an unthinking childhood action. He supposes that he is being reunited with the Blue Man so justice can be served. The Blue Man, however, says he is there simply to help Eddie understand that “there are no random acts...all lives intersect.” Each life affects others in ways unrecognized at the time, and “birth and death are part of a whole.”
After he delivers his message, the Blue Man’s skin fades into a beautiful, normal color, and he turns to leave. Eddie anxiously asks him if he had been able to save the little girl at Ruby Pier just before he died, but the Blue Man cannot tell him.
Eddie is whisked away again over the ocean and is dropped into a “lifeless terrain” full of carnage. He finds that he is a soldier again and that his commanding officer, known affectionately as the Captain, is the second person he meets in heaven.
Eddie enlisted in the army when the war began and was sent to fight in the Philippines. Along with the Captain and three other comrades, he was taken prisoner by enemy soldiers. The group was forced to slave in the coal mines and suffered all sorts of atrocities, but after several months, the men managed to overcome their guards and escape. In enraged jubilation, the Captain and his men set fire to the deserted encampment in which they had been imprisoned. As bombs began to fall overhead, Eddie glimpsed, to his horror, a small figure running in the fire. Desperate to save the victim, he ignored the admonitions of his friends to leave until a sudden pain ripped through his knee, and he was aware of no more. The Captain now quietly reveals to Eddie, “I was the one...who shot you.”
The Captain took Eddie’s leg to save his life, but Eddie remembers all the pain the wound caused him for the remainder of his days, and he reacts with fury. But there is something else about that long-ago incident that he does not know. To enlighten him, he is shown a vision of what happened after he was shot. The Captain, who bravely led the way as the men, carrying Eddie, made their escape, stepped on a land mine and was blown to bits. The others made it to safety because the Captain gave his life so that they might live.
The lesson the Captain has for Eddie is:
Sacrifice is a part of life....Sometimes when you sacrifice something precious, you’re not really losing it...you’re just passing it on to someone else.
He asks Eddie for forgiveness, and in the moment of their reconciliation, the barren landscape begins to bloom. As the Captain walks away, Eddie asks again if he had been able to save the little girl at Ruby Pier. Like the Blue Man, the Captain cannot tell him.
Eddie is lifted by a sudden wind and transported into the mountains. As he walks down a narrow ridge, he realizes that he has regained his aging body, “scars and fat and all.” Eddie comes upon a snowy field in the middle of which is a diner. When he walks up to the door and peers through the glass, he is astonished to see the solitary figure of his father, sitting hunched over in a booth.
Eddie’s father had been a distant man who was often drunk. As a child, Eddie was “whacked, lashed, and beaten,” yet through it all, he “privately adored his old man” and longed for his approval. The one thing Eddie’s father had admired in his son was his ability to fix things. Eddie’s father often gave the boy small maintenance tasks to do, ordering curtly, “Fix it.” Eddie would do so and then proudly return his handiwork with the equally curt response, “It’s fixed.” After the war, Eddie sunk into a deep depression. Withdrawal had been a sign of weakness to his father; he raised his hand to strike Eddie to goad him into getting a job. For the first time, Eddie fought back, and his father never spoke to him again.
Eddie pounds on the glass, screaming to his father now in heaven as he had in life; his father, in death, ignores him. An old woman appears and tells...
(The entire section is 2423 words.)