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.