Albom sets “The First Phone Call from Heaven,” in Small Town America. The story takes place in Coldwater, Michigan where local townsfolk begin receiving phone calls from deceased relatives they recently lost. All around the same time the police chief hears from his deceased son who was killed in Afghanistan, a woman gets calls on her cell phone from her dead sister, and another woman starts getting calls from her mother in heaven. Believers – and protesters – descend on the small Northern Michigan town as word of the heavenly phone calls spreads by way of an up-and-coming television news reporter. Interwoven in this very spiritual story that centers on how we connect to heaven is the story of Alexander Graham Bell’s invention of the telephone. Just as people doubted Bell’s magical telephone would really connect people who couldn’t see each other, Albom seems to remind the reader that we shouldn’t be so skeptical about these calls from heaven.
Reading this novel, we are unsure as to what Albom believes about the afterlife and just how far he’s willing to go in that spiritual direction. A self-described “not very religious guy,” Albom has written his share of spiritual and religious novels. The religion of his college professor in “Tuesdays with Morrie” and of his childhood rabbi in “Have a Little Faith” aside, Albom has now penned three novels that could easily be described as theological fiction. “The First Phone Call from Heaven” joins “The Five People You Meet in Heaven” and last year’s “The Time Keeper” as novels that seek to understand both God and the role of godliness in our lives.
Albom began his literary career focused on writing sports columns and authoring sports-related books (mostly about Detroit’s professional sports teams and University of Michigan personalities like Coach Bo Schembechler and the Fab Five basketball phenoms). However, after the success of “Tuesdays with Morrie,” Albom seems to have been scratching that perpetual spiritual itch of his.
If the author carries any doubt that we can communicate with those in heaven (or if there is a heaven after all), he places that doubt in the character of Sully Harding. The disgraced pilot returns from prison to find his young son begging for a cell phone of his own so he can talk to his dead mother (who tragically died right after Sully’s plane went down). The problem is that, of all the Coldwater residents, Sully doubts the phone calls are legitimate and begins to research what he presumes is a hoax.
Coldwater, Michigan becomes Albom’s canvas on which he paints the religious debate of humanity’s connection to heaven. This small town forces local church leaders, a police chief, the town’s non-salaried mayor, the news media, religious believers and skeptics alike to all come together to discuss this phenomenon.
There are zealots on both sides of the story and Albom allows it to all play out. Perhaps this is the book that actually brings Albom’s other stories together. After all, it is about death but it is also about life in heaven and how we survivors never really let our loved ones become disconnected to us. The story of these heavenly cell phone calls to Michigan will create more questions about the afterlife than answer any, but I have a sense that was Mitch Albom’s plan all along.