Novel pumps hope for sweet here­after

Winnipeg Free Press - Section G - - BOOKS - Re­viewed by Gor­don Arnold

MITCH Al­bom has served up another gen­er­ous help­ing of his spe­cialty, Heaven Lite. The pop­u­lar Amer­i­can au­thor has sold 30 mil­lion copies of his books, in­clud­ing Tues­days with Mor­rie and The Five Peo­ple You Meet in Heaven. His new novel is likely to be a hit as well, cater­ing to that all-too-hu­man long­ing for a few more min­utes of con­ver­sa­tion with a de­parted loved one. A strong river of hope flows through the pages of The First Phone Call from Heaven as Al­bom tack­les ques­tions of in­di­vid­ual heal­ing and so­ci­ety’s re­sponse to what comes af­ter life with a warmth and emo­tion that tran­scends re­li­gious de­nom­i­na­tions. There’s no heavy-duty the­ol­ogy here. In­deed, God does not make so much as a cameo ap­pear­ance. The sto­ry­line is fairly sim­ple — if you be­lieve. Sev­eral res­i­dents of Cold­wa­ter, a small town in Michi­gan, start re­ceiv­ing cell­phone calls from their dead rel­a­tives. Love is the un­der­ly­ing theme in the mes­sages de­scrib­ing heaven. They are cus­tom-tai­lored to their re­cip­i­ents, in­clud­ing the town’s sher­iff, who hears from his son. Real es­tate agent Kather­ine Yellin gets a weekly call from her dead sis­ter. In one typ­i­cal mes­sage she is told, “We are all in the light... the light is grace... and we are part of... the one great thing.” That great thing is love. “You are born in it... you re­turn to it.” The phone calls start the day a jet pi­lot, Sul­li­van Hard­ing, is re­leased from prison for crash­ing a jet into an air­craft. Sully’s wife, badly in­jured in a car ac­ci­dent on her way to the crash site, dies in hos­pi­tal while he is in prison. Af­ter Kather­ine pro­claims the mir­a­cle in church, oth­ers go pub­lic as well. A reporter at a small TV sta­tion, is as­signed to cover the mir­a­cle, but re­mains skep­ti­cal. When the story goes vi­ral, she is sent back to Cold­wa­ter to con­tinue the cov­er­age. The pub­lic­ity changes the na­ture of the mir­a­cle, from an in­tense per­sonal ex­pe­ri­ence to a pub­lic mael­strom. Cell­phone sales start boom­ing. Once-empty churches are now full on Sun­days, the lo­cal diner is busy all the time and can barely keep up with de­mand. Peo­ple are clam­our­ing for real es­tate close to those who have ex­pe­ri­enced the mir­a­cle. And the Ro­man Catholic bishop, un­will­ing to con­cede a mir­a­cle just yet, is jock­ey­ing to put one of his flock in po­si­tion to be credited as the first to have re­ceived a call, should the mir­a­cle be proven. Sully doesn’t be­lieve in the mir­a­cle. For him, there is no heaven, and dead is dead. When his son’s teacher gives the boy a cell­phone so he can wait for a call from his mom, that sets Sully off on a cam­paign to dis­cover the truth. The story is salted with gems that re­turn to the main themes. What is false about hope? If the world be­lieves, it be­haves bet­ter. If you be­lieve it, you don’t need proof. Al­bom has drawn a fair bit of flak for eth­i­cal mis­steps as a sports colum­nist for the Detroit Free Press, but this has not hurt his pop­u­lar­ity as an au­thor, and he leaves be­hind in the pages of this book the im­pres­sion he is a man of faith, though not nec­es­sar­ily in the con­ven­tional sense. Gor­don Arnold is a Winnipeg writer. His lat­est fic­tion ap­pears in The Prairie Jour­nal

of Cana­dian Lit­er­a­ture.

The First Phone Call from Heaven By Mitch Al­bom HarperCollins, 272 page, $33

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