Synopsis

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Last Updated on June 1, 2019, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 560

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.

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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.

Extended Summary

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Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 2423

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 Eddie that his father cannot hear him because he is not really there; Eddie is in a part of her eternity, not his father’s. The woman introduces herself as Ruby and says that Ruby Pier is her namesake.

Ruby was a “working girl” who stole the heart of a distinguished gentleman named Emile. The two married, and Emile built the resort park in her honor. Tragically, the park burned down, and Emile almost lost his life trying to save it. He survived but was in and out of the hospital for the rest of his life; Ruby Pier was later rebuilt by someone else.

Ruby knows that Eddie hated working at the pier because he felt it was not his choice. Eddie once had higher aspirations, but his father always discouraged them, emphasizing his son’s gift for fixing things and snapping, “What? This ain’t good enough for you?” When the old man died, his mother felt crushed and disoriented. Eddie took his father’s job so he could take care of her. Inwardly,

He cursed his father for dying and for trapping him in the very life he’d been trying to escape.

Ruby has come to tell Eddie how his father died. She acknowledges that his father was hard on him but suggests that perhaps Eddie was hard on his father, too. Eddie’s father contracted pneumonia while trying to save his best friend, Mickey Shea, from drowning. Even though Mickey had been an alcoholic who tried to compromise Eddie’s mother while in a drunken haze, he spoke up for Eddie’s father to help him get the job at Ruby Pier, and Eddie’s father was loyal to his friends. After he contracted pneumonia, Eddie’s father was in the hospital for many days. On the night he died, he crawled to an open window and lay on the sill in the freezing winter air, calling for his wife, Mickey, and his sons, Joe and Eddie.

Ruby’s lesson to Eddie is that he must forgive his father for the way he was treated or else he would be destroyed by his own anger and hatred. She observes, “Your father is not the reason you never left the pier,” but when Eddie asks, “Then what is?” she is gone. Eddie enters the diner then and leans in close to the ghost of his father. Although he knows the old man cannot hear him, he whispers gently, “It’s fixed.”

Eddie finds that he is aging now very quickly; in fact, “he [is] rotting away.” He blinks and finds himself attending a series of weddings; at the last one, he is reunited with the great love of his life, Marguerite. On his seventeenth birthday, Eddie met Marguerite on the boardwalk and danced with her in the moonlight at the Stardust Band Shell. She waited for him while he served his time in the army, and they married upon his return. Eddie came back from the war a changed man; his leg never healed properly, and “the war had crawled inside...his soul.” He felt bitter about his dead-end job at Ruby Pier but Marguerite did not mind any of that; her only regret was that they were unable to have children.

Marguerite and Eddie finally arranged to adopt a child, but just before the adoption was finalized, Eddie went to the track with his friend, Noel. He was winning and called his wife to tell her the good news, but Marguerite feared that he would gamble away all his money. She got in the car to fetch him and bring him home. On the way, she was involved in a terrible accident. Marguerite stayed in the hospital for a very long time, and the adoption was called off. For a long time, the shadow of “unspoken blame” hung over the couple. As the years passed, their wounds slowly healed and they fell in love all over again, finding this time “a deep but quiet love [that was] irreplaceable.” Three years later, Marguerite developed a tumor on her brain. When she died, a part of Eddie went with her.

Marguerite has chosen weddings for her heaven because she loves their constancy and the possibilities they represent. The five people she met in heaven “made all the difference” in enabling her to understand her life; she knows how much Eddie loved her and has been waiting for him.

Eddie is granted an abundance of time with Marguerite, and they spend it walking through the weddings and talking about everything under the sun. Even though Marguerite always thought of it as home, Eddie tells her he is sorry he never got them away from Ruby Pier, blaming “his father, his leg, and the war.” Marguerite asks him what happened during the war, but Eddie can only respond, “I lost myself.” Eddie always felt that Marguerite was taken from him too soon, and he continued loving her even after she was gone. Marguerite tells him, “Lost love is still love.” Eddie’s love for her was so strong she felt it even in heaven. The two dance now, holding each other close. Eddie closes his eyes, and when he opens them again, Marguerite is gone.

For a timeless moment, Eddie is thrust into a sea of nothingness. Then gradually he realizes that his body has decayed even further and that he is by a river in the presence of children at play. A young girl who is sitting apart from the others beckons to him, and he haltingly stumbles over to her, leaning on a cane. The girl appears to be Asian; she is five or six years old and says that her name is Tala. Eddie discovers that he is wearing his Ruby Pier uniform and takes some pipe cleaners from his pocket to make her a dog. The child smiles and takes the offering. Then she stuns him by saying, without emotion, “You burn me. You make me fire.”

Visions of war come flooding back to Eddie; he was right, there had been someone in those burning huts. He feels overcome with self-recrimination and remorse, and he howls in agony, “Forgive me, OH GOD...what have I done?!” When his anguish is finally quieted, Tala taps his shoulder. She is grotesquely disfigured now, her body charred by fire. She holds out a stone to Eddie and says simply, “You wash me.” In the river, as he rubs the child’s body with the stone, her scars fall away. When he is finished, Tala whispers, “I am five.” He understands that she is his fifth person in heaven, and he regards her silently with tears rolling down his face. When Tala asks curiously, “Why sad?” Eddie responds:

I was sad because I didn’t do anything with my life. I was nothing. I felt like I wasn’t supposed to be there.

Calmly, Tala tells Eddie that he was exactly where he was supposed to be. His humble job fixing rides at Ruby Pier had a very noble purpose—to keep children safe. Sensing that he does not have much time left, Eddie asks Tala the question that has been most on his mind: “The little girl on the pier...did I save her?” Tala answers, yes, he kept her safe by pushing her out of the way. The small hands Eddie felt in his own were not hers but Tala’s; she came to bring him to heaven, to keep him safe.

Tala takes Eddie now through “the strong but silent current” of the river. All his pain and weariness is gone, and he feels his body being washed away from his soul. Eddie emerges in a brilliant light and encounters an unimaginable scene. Thousands of people are gathered on a pier; they are there

because of the simple, mundane things Eddie had done in his life...the rides he had kept safe.

Indescribable peace comes to Eddie as he floats above the boardwalk. Marguerite is waiting for him, and as Eddie reaches for her, he hears a single word from God: “home.”

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