The National Catholic Review
Patricia A. Kossmann

One of publishing’s most remarkable success stories in recent times centers on an old man, a young man and life’s greatest lesson. It is the book, later an Off-Broadway play, called Tuesdays With Morrie, by Mitch Albom. The hardcover edition, published by Doubleday in 1997, nested comfortably on The New York Times bestseller list for about five years, at which time the paperback arrived to coincide with the stage adaptation.

 

In brief, it is a writer’s paean to a professor who taught at Brandeis University during the author’s years there. He was truly a mentor to Albom, and a source of inspiration and confidence when years later the then successful columnist and sportswriter was troubled. Possessed of a lightness of spirit along with a thirst to explore life’s mysteries, questions large and small, and of course the desire to influence many young and equally eager minds, Morrie went on to touch millions of hearts. When he was diagnosed with Lou Gehrig’s disease in 1994, many former students traveled distances to visit their beloved professor. Albom paid 14 such visits. Death and life were the focus of their weekly discourse.

Most of us can name such a mentor in our lives. My mother comes instantly to mind, perhaps because I write this as the first anniversary of her death looms. She did, however, possess Morrie’s lightness of spirit, and she did pass along many wise lessons. Surely the Morries and Maries of this world knew they mattered. We console ourselves, after their passing, in the Christian conviction that they are enjoying a heavenly reward.

Some persons, unfortunately, pass through life with hardly a sense of meaning or, rather, self-worth. They continuously put themselves down as failures. Mitch Albom knew one such person: his uncle Edward Beitchman. And now he has written a novel about a man named Eddie, inspired by his uncle. He wrote the book so that “people who felt unimportant here on earth [will] realize, finally [upon reaching heaven], how much they mattered and how they were loved.”

The book is entitled The Five People You Meet in Heaven (Hyperion, $19.95). And I repeat, it is fiction. I must admit the title is somewhat off-putting and certainly curious. But as none of us has any clue what heaven is really like, it is fair game and open territory for writers to explore.

In brief, the aging war veteran Eddie never rose above—or away from—a seaside amusement park named Ruby’s Pier, where he repaired equipment and rides. One day, at the age of 83, he dies tragically while trying to save a little girl who is dangling from a broken seat.

The story, told in alternate “time zones,” takes us through the events and persons of Eddie’s life and through his experience of heaven. From the moment he passed over, his overarching concern was to know whether or not he had saved the girl’s life (he did). Albom’s heaven, as described on the book’s flyleaf, is “a place where your earthly life is explained to you by five people” who were part of it, whether friends and relatives or unknown strangers. We journey with Eddie as he makes each encounter, one more striking than the next. I won’t give it all away—you should read the book—but among the more memorable are two war-related encounters. Especially powerful are the five “Lessons,” chapterettes actually, that conclude each section.

Eddie’s eyes are opened. And through them, the reader is afforded some quietly powerful glimpses of life’s everyday meaning: the meaning of persons and events, of the impact that we have on so many others without even knowing it. This is a good book. I read it in little more than a couple of subway rides. And what a rare combination: a fable that is palpably real, fiction with a wise “takeaway.”

Come to think of it, whether or not you know someone like Eddie, you’d be doing a good thing by stuffing those special Christmas stockings with a little bit o’ heaven.

Patricia Kossmann is literary editor of America.

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