Thursday, March 9, 2017

The Five People You Meet in Heaven

THE FIVE PEOPLE YOU MEET IN HEAVEN by Mitch Albom; 2003, Hyperion.

Eddie is the maintenance man at Ruby's Pier, a seaside amusement park. It's his job to keep the rides safe and in good working condition. The story opens on his 83rd birthday. His wife died many years ago; they had no children. Dominguez, one of the pier workers, wishes him a happy birthday; otherwise it looks like just another boring day, checking brakes, tightening a bolt, listening for mechanical trouble everywhere he walks, limping along with his bad knee, an old war wound.
      A woman screams and points up at the tower of Freddy's Free Fall, where a cart holding four people is hanging at a crooked angle. Eddie moves as fast as he can to the platform base and the gathering crowd. He sends two young workers up to get the terrified four safely out of the car and onto the upper platform. When he sees the cable beginning to unravel, he turns and shouts to the crowd GET BACK!! He turns back to the platform to see a little girl lying on it, crying. The empty cart above breaks loose and starts to fall. The last thing Eddie remembers is his lunge toward the kid and feeling two small hands in his grasp. A stunning impact. Then nothing.
     . . . Where . . . where is this . . . where has my pain gone . . . Gradually, a scene materializes around him, Ruby's Pier of years ago. He is in the “freak tent” where the fat lady, the wolf boy and other oddities of nature are exhibited. A middle aged man with blue skin sits alone on the stage. “Hello, Edward. I've been waiting for you . . . Where is this, you ask? Heaven.”
       Heaven? Can't be. I've spent most of my adult life trying to get away from Ruby's Pier, and this is where I end up ? No.
      “There are five people you will meet here; each was in your life for a reason. That's what heaven is for. For understanding your life on earth. I am the first of the five.”
      “What killed you?”
      The blue-skinned man smiles. “You did.”

      Young Eddie had run out in the street after his ball one day; a driver slams on his brakes, skids, drives on slowly, dizzy, pain in his chest. A policeman finds the man dead beside his car.
     “I don't understand,” whispers Eddie now. What good came from your death?”
      “You lived,” the blue man said. “I am leaving now. This step in heaven is over for me. But there are others for you to meet.”
      “Tell me; the little girl at the pier – did I save her?”
Blue Man doesn't answer.
      Eddie slumps. “Then my death was a waste, just like my life.”
       “No life is a waste,” blue man says. “The only time we waste is the time we spend thinking we are alone.” And he is gone.
      The second person Eddie meets is in a tall palm tree, smoking a cigarette. He tells Eddie to climb up. Eddie does and sees the captain who commanded his unit in the Philippine liberation in 1945. The Captain, Eddie, and three other soldiers were taken prisoner by the Japanese and spent four months in a prison camp, forced to dig coal.   When one soldier grew sick and collapsed, a guard shot him.
       On the day American bombers could be heard approaching, the prisoners distract and kill all four remaining guards, capture weapons and flame throwers and burn the camp. Captain orders them into a truck; “ Hurry! The bombers won't know we're not the enemy.” But Eddie sees something or someone moving inside the largest flaming building, a crawling child-sized figure. “Wait!” He starts toward the building
      “We can't wait! C'MON, EDDIE!” A moment later a gun-shot. Eddie falls, his knee wounded.
      The Captain in the tree grins now.”The other guys got you on a stretcher and drove out of here fast. I kept the promise I made – I didn't leave anyone behind. You would have died in that burning building if I hadn't shot you in the leg. You made a sacrifice, I made one, too, stepping onto that land mine ahead of the truck. Forgive me about the leg?” He offers his hand. Slowly, Eddie offers his. The Captain grips it. “That's what I've been waiting for.” And he's gone.

      The third person Eddie meets, he's never seen before. A woman, standing in the snow outside a diner; its blinking sign says EAT. She introduces herself as Ruby, and is there to explain to Eddie how and why his father died.
And there will be a fourth person, and a fifth . . . .
     You who read these book reviews know by now that they don't tell second half of a story; you need to read the whole book at the library, bookstore, or borrow it from a friend.
      And although I realize this story is fiction, I found myself wondering seriously, who are the five people I would meet, and why? The end of this book will surprise and please you.

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