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Onyx reviews: The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom

The first clue that this book is probably aimed straight at readers' heartstrings is its size. It's one of those small hardcovers that publishers reserve for shorter inspirational. Mitch Albom is the author of the surprise sensation Tuesdays With Morrie, another small hardcover that tweaked the emotions of millions of readers that has remained in print in hardcover for six years. That book recounted sportswriter Albom's reconnection with a dying former college professor who had a profound impact on Albom's life during his formative adult years.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven is Albom's first foray into fiction, a riskier venue for inspirational material because the author isn't limited by the bounds of reality. Albom explores a new scenario for the afterlife, one in which each new arrival is met by five people from their earthly life, reminiscent of Dickens' ghosts of the past, who explain to the newcomer how his or her life touched the lives of others, sometimes—but not always—for the better.

Albom's protagonist is an 83-year-old man so strongly identified with his lifelong career at a pier amusement park that many people know him as Eddie Maintenance. Eddie had other aspirations beyond falling into his father's dead-end job keeping the carnival rides in safe operating condition. He had dreams of college and a job away from the pier, but a bullet in the leg during his last hours on a Philippine island during World War II left him with a limp and a loss of self.

Eddie believes his life on the pier amounted to little. He did marry the woman he had always loved, but they couldn't have children. Circumstances that Eddie could have prevented robbed them of the chance to adopt and his beloved wife died young. Eddie also had a falling out with his father, who went to the grave without ever speaking to him again.

Eddie dies as he lived, working on the rides. His last memory is of trying to save a little girl from a falling carriage and he hopes desperately to learn that he was successful because that one action is the yardstick by which he measures his life's worthiness.

What Eddie learns from his five heralds is the impact his life had on people he didn't even know very well—or at all—including the Blue Man, a carnival performer whose death Eddie inadvertently caused without ever realizing it. Each person's segment is laid out like a parable or a morality tale intended to convey something important to Eddie. Albom seems unwilling to let readers get the message for themselves, though. Each section ends with an explanation of the lesson from the bit of personal history that Eddie has just learned.

It's hard not to wish that Albom had been less preachy and a little subtler. Readers are capable of reading between the lines. The vignette episodes where Eddie meets his five tutors would have been sufficient to convey his message without having the moral set down in simple words in case anyone had missed the point. The secret of heaven is that each person's life affects countless others. It's not a startling revelation, but one that a reader could easily have gleaned without having it written out in black type in the epilogue.

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