Chapter 1: The End -
The story of Eddie begins hours before the end of his life, even though he does not yet know it. On his 83rd birthday, Eddie is working at Ruby Pier, the amusement park where he is the head maintenance manager. He spends his days tightening bolts, spreading grease, and fixing the machinery on different rides like “Freddy’s Free Fall.” Eddie once dreamed of doing other things with his life, but he has now accepted his fate as “Eddie the Maintenance Man.”
Eddie gives Dominguez (one of his employees) some money to help pay for his upcoming family vacation to Mexico. As he looks around the outdated amusement park, Eddie remembers when Ruby Pier had the mystique of the old carnivals filled with oddities and magic. Nowadays, young people are drawn to the new high-tech theme parks. Eddie compares his aging body to the old rides creaking along at the Pier. The injuries that Eddie sustained during combat in World War II have left him with a checkerboard of scars and poorly healed bones, meaning that he has to walk with a cane. However, on his birthday, Eddie remembers one of his beautiful memories of Ruby Pier. This was where he met his true love, Marguerite, and they danced under the moonlight. Over time, he has reluctantly acclimatized to void she left when she died.
A series of seemingly disconnected events leads up to the accident that will ultimately end Eddie's life. A young man has lost his car key somewhere in the park. A little girl named Amy or Annie, who has walked away from her mother, asks Eddie to make her an animal. He twists some pipe cleaners into a rabbit and gives it to the girl, who trots away happily.
Eddie is contemplating his 83rd birthday when a commotion interrupts his reverie. One of the cars is precariously tilted and dangling from Freddy’s Free Fall. Eddie makes his way to the ride quickly despite the pain shooting through his leg. Upon seeing the people hanging from the wayward car, Eddie takes charge of the situation. He calls for two attendants to evacuate the tilting car. However, Eddie does not know that the missing car key is jammed against a cable on Freddy’s Free Fall, where it has been slowly severing the thin metal strands. As soon as Eddie realizes the cable is about to snap, he reverses his command and screams for the attendants not to release the cart, but the frantic crowd drowns out his warnings.
The cart begins to slip and fall; two tons of steel come hurtling towards the ground. Eddie spots the girl with the pipe cleaner bunny standing on the platform beneath the falling cart. In a split second, Eddie drops his cane and dives for the girl. He is able to ignore the pain shooting through his body as in his desperate attempt to save her life. The last thing Eddie remembers is the soft touch of two small hands in his.
Today is Eddie’s Birthday. The narrative cuts to the first of many birthday flashbacks. This one takes place on the actual day of Eddie's birth in 1920. Eddie's father is smoking cigarettes in the waiting room when a nurse brings him to see his newborn son for the very first time.
Chapter 2: The Journey -
Eddie does not get to witness the final moments of his life. Instead, he finds himself elevated, floating through a “pumpkin-colored” atmosphere. Eddie replays his last earthly memories in his mind. He recalls the crashing cart from Freddy’s Free Fall and he remembers the small girl standing directly under it. Eddie wonders if he saved her. There is no way of knowing as Eddie floats through a kaleidoscope of colors and hues. He notices that he feels calm, and for the first time in a long time, he feels no physical pain.
Eddie's next birthday flashback brings the reader to a picnic at Ruby’s Pier. Eddie has just turned five years old and is playing with his gifts, which include a cowboy hat and toy pistols. There is a vanilla cake with five blue wax candles. Eddie's Uncle Mickey, who fixes the Ruby Pier rides with Eddie's father, jovially holds Eddie upside down and gives him five "birthday bumps." Eddie wriggles free and finds refuge in his mother’s arms.
Mitch Albom begins the narrative of Five People... like a children’s tale, "This is a story about a man named Eddie and it begins at the end," he writes. With this simple sentence, Albom reminds his readers that everyone has a story and all of our stories will eventually end. In this first chapter, Albom highlights the everyday occurrences marking Eddie's last day on Earth, which allows him to paint a portrait of the protagonist's life. While the reader and the author are aware that Eddie's life is about to end, Eddie himself is not. Therefore, Albom places the reader in an all-knowing position. It is appropriate, then, that the reader becomes privy to certain truths about Eddie's life that even he may not yet be able to identify. For example, Albom's selective flashbacks and tone reveal Eddie's life as being filled with small triumphs, which Eddie himself does not realize until the end of the story. Eddie knows Ruby Pier as well as he knows his own body; he takes his job and the patrons' safety very seriously. Additionally, young children are drawn to Eddie and he appears to be grateful for their kindness, as we see in his interactions with the 8-year-old girl who requests a pipe-cleaner toy.
Like in his previous work, Albom imposes a strict structure to his narrative that is just as crucial to the story as the plot itself. He chooses to selectively flash back only to Eddie's previous birthdays in order to develop the character of Eddie, and each of these birthdays highlight someone or something that was very important to Eddie at a certain moment in his life. Additionally, Albom crafts a cause-and-effect seesaw between the past and the present by juxtaposing Eddie at age 83 with Eddie as a child. We learn that although he is alone at the end of his life, there have been many people who have loved Eddie - like his mother and Marguerite - all of whom likely shaped the kind soul that Eddie hides beneath his ornery exterior.
The nature of Eddie's death is connected to Albom's inspiration for writing The Five People you Meet in Heaven. Albom's own Uncle Eddie was a taxi driver until his death at the age of 83 and who, like Eddie the Maintenance Man, felt as though he never accomplished anything in his life. Through the fictionalized version of Eddie, Albom attempts to validate ordinary people who feel as though they they have failed because they lack the material vestiges most commonly associated with success - like wealth, prizes, houses, cars, etc. Eddie is a relatable character for many Americans - he is an ordinary working-class veteran without many possessions. However, he dies in an act of pure heroism - sacrificing his long life so that a young girl can continue hers.
In Albom's dedication for Five People.... he writes, "Everyone has an idea of heaven, as do most religions, and they should all be respected. The version represented here is only a guess, a wish, in some ways, that my uncle and others like him - people who felt unimportant here on Earth- realize, finally, how much they mattered and how they were loved." With this idea in mind, Albom's vision of Heaven is much more about sensation and memory than it is about the external implications of afterlife. As Eddie journeys away from his life on earth, his attempts to process his new environment seem almost childlike. Albom uses a kaleidoscope of colors to foreshadow the various places and people that Eddie will meet as he journeys towards Heaven.
Albom introduces some dark undercurrents in the second flashback to Eddie's fifth birthday. There is an emotional and physical disconnect between Eddie and the male authority figures in his life, which could be the reason for his lingering fear and distrust. Eddie’s Uncle Mickey playfully attempts to give his nephew birthday bumps by hanging Eddie upside down. Although other party attendees are laughing, Eddie is not amused. He struggles to get loose and runs into his mother’s arms; she seems to implicitly understand that Eddie’s fears are deeper than some mild birthday bumps. Albom hints at Eddie's already tenuous relationships with his father and uncle in Eddie’s intense determination to free himself from Mickey's seemingly innocent birthday ritual and his own father’s tacit acceptance of the act.