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For Your Library

The Heavenly Village by Cynthia Rylant, The Blue Sky Press, 1999.

This book can be read in one sitting. Get your beverage and snack of choice, a comfortable place to sit and enter in. In this imagining of the afterlife, most of those who have died go straight to heaven, but there are some who are not quite ready. For varieties of reasons, they feel tethered to their lives on earth and are reluctant to let go. For these ambivalent souls, God has provided "the heavenly village," an idyllic place with pleasant weather, friendly neighbors, any desired and needed creature comforts and flexible time. With a wink and a nod from the author, one character wonders if they're in Connecticut (where I now feel an increased need to visit). The book is a series of profiles of some of the inhabitants of the heavenly village. Their lives on earth are described as well as the purposes of their time in the village. They did not consciously choose to delay heaven itself, but God understood that they had some debts to pay, accounts to settle or some kind of business to be resolved.

Certainly a religious book, Rylant's spirituality includes the vision of spirits existing with God both before and after life on earth, and she uses quotes from the Bible, both from Hebrew scriptures and the New Testament, preceding chapters. She also envisions a perfectly gracious and humanistic God, one who reflects, perhaps regrets, and has more to learn. It is a similar image of God as is presented in her book of short poems, God Went to Beauty School. The Heavenly Village provides a dreamlike place where human needs for forgiveness, connection and wholeness are understood, respected and supported. It is a kind and provocative vision.

The Five People You Meet in Heaven by Mitch Albom, Hyperion, 2003.

Mitch Albom was a sports journalist and broadcaster when he wrote the bestseller, Tuesdays with Morrie. Since the amazing success and popularity of Tuesdays with Morrie, Albom has written more about life, death, inspiration and meaning of both life and death. The Five People You Meet in Heaven was his first novel and it was at least partially inspired by the life of his real-life uncle. Like the main character in the book, his uncle was named "Eddie," served in the Philippines in World War II, and lived to age 83.

Albom's view of heaven is of a place where a person gets to learn about the meaning and purpose of one's life and how it is part of a larger story of many persons' lives. Eddie is a depressed widower who works for an amusement park maintaining and repairing the rides. His wife died years ago, they had no children, and he has no family left. On his 83rd birthday, he dies while saving a young girl from a falling amusement park ride. Instead of going directly to heaven or having a sudden enlightenment about his life and life in general, he learns that everyone meets five people after they die and these five people help the person understand more about how the person's life affected and was affected by the lives of others. Some of the five are not surprising but some are very much unexpected. The journey to understanding that he takes with each of the five guides is reminiscent of other fables such as Dickens' A Christmas Carol and the movie It's a Wonderful Life. Interesting that in all three stories it is a man, not a woman, who needs to be enlightened as to how his life has meaning and worth in its deep interconnection with the welfare and lives of others.

Albom is a good storyteller and keeps the reader's interest throughout. His vision taps into the human desire to know and understand that our lives matter and that forgiveness is still possible in the end—an end in which we all will be one of the five people someone else will meet in heaven.

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