Tuesday, January 7, 2014

The First Phone Call from Heaven

The First Phone Call from Heaven is the new novel from Mitch Albom, the acclaimed author of Tuesdays with Morrie and For One More Day. In this wonderfully riveting new novel, Albom ponders a compelling scenario; What if the dead could communicate from beyond? Would it ease our sorrow to know that they are at peace? Would it bring you joy or open old wounds, never quite giving us closure? If your phone rang today, would you believe? The truth of his tale lies within each of us for as Albom eloquently states, “What happened next depends on how much you believe.”

It’s September in Coldwater, a small town near Lake Michigan when the first calls arrive; Tess Rafferty gets a call from her mom – “I’m here safe and sound” she says, like she used to when she'd call after an extended trip so Tess wouldn’t worry; Katherine Yellin hears from her sister Diane – “It’s better than we dreamed, Kath.”; and Jack Sellers, the police chief, hears from his son Robbie, whom he lost during a tour of duty. Each rejoices in hearing those long lost voices and the simple, yet brief reassuring messages about the joys of heaven. Word quickly spreads throughout the small town and a few more lucky souls confess to receiving calls. A total of seven Coldwater residents announce their good fortune – mothers, daughters, sisters and friends – reunited again from the great beyond.

Sullivan “Sully” Harding, recently released from jail after being unjustly imprisoned for ten months is happy to be in his old hometown and reunited with his son Jules. Sully is adjusting to freedom and to the loss of his beloved wife Giselle, who died after a long coma during his incarceration. “You have to start over” they tell him, but he knows that life isn’t a board game on which you can hit reset, and that he isn’t really starting over, rather “continuing without.” Struggling to find a job and settle into his new life with his son, Sully hears of the phone calls as does Jules who pines to hear from his mother. When a teacher gives Jules a plastic phone and tells him he too could get a call from heaven, Sully fumes at the outrage of giving a child false hope and becomes determined to prove that this all a huge hoax.

As the news spreads and the world hears of Coldwater, the press, protesters and faithful invade the small town as more calls are received and the number of doubters and believers grow. Relying on his training in the Navy, Sully sets about collecting and analyzing information on those that received the calls – methodically and systematically looking for connections or a pattern to prove to the world – and to himself – that “dead is dead” and heaven doesn’t exist.

This was such a great book. It offers something for believers and skeptics alike; presenting the innate goodness of most people as well as those few greedy opportunists who never pass up an opportunity to make a buck. Its simple tale can be taken at face value as merely a compelling mystery and heartwarming story or as a reaffirmation of your faith in God and heaven and what awaits us beyond this earthly realm. At its heart it is a story about loss, hope and forgiveness.

Through its numerous characters, Albom offers an insightful look at different viewpoints in regards to faith and heaven without ever being preachy. Tess’ joy and shock at hearing from the mother she so deeply loved and cared for through her years with Alzheimer’s so deeply mirrored what my own sentiments would have been that it brought tears to my eyes. Given my faith, I felt for Sully’s doubts but could totally understand them given his heartbreak and loss. During the trials and tribulations of life, you can turn to your faith as a source of strength and comfort or your faith can be shaken by the senselessness of life’s pain and suffering. My faith has always brought me peace and when I lost my mom and best friend, it was my wholehearted belief in God, heaven and the thought that one day we'll be reunited with our loved ones that bolstered and sustained me. I firmly believe in God's golden rule to do unto others as you'd have them do unto you and it is a driving force behind my will and need to do for others; though faith isn't a pre-requisite or requirement for being kind.

An additional interesting aspect of the book is that Albom artfully weaves throughout the novel snippets of information about Alexander Graham Bell, credited with inventing the first telephone. He notes “the news of life is carried via telephone. A baby’s birth, a couple engaged, a tragic accident on a late night highway – most milestones of the human journey, good or bad, are foreshadowed by the sound of ringing” hence Bell's role in this story. We learn that both Bell’s mother and wife were deaf and communicating with them earlier in life played a key role in his later development of the phone; and how Bell’s experiments yelling into a dead man’s ear helped him to understand that if sound could vibrate an electrical current, then words could travel as far as electricity; and as such how in truth, “the dead were already part of the telephone, two years before anyone saw one.”

This sentimental and uplifting story is a true delight. I loved both the page-turning mystery which piqued my curiosity and its thoughtful resolution, as well as its unique and thought-provoking premise. Believer or skeptic every reader will enjoy this Albom winner that poignantly reminds us that “heaven is always and forever around us, and no soul remembered is ever really gone.”