Just as UFO’s seem to only show themselves in rural areas instead of those with a more dense, and perhaps more intellectual population, so goes The First Phone Call from Heaven, when phones begin to ring in Coldwater, Michigan, population not a whole lot. On one particular Friday, a day of the week considered rather important among Christians, a half dozen phones ring. On the other end is a very familiar, if not unmistakable voice of a loved one who had passed away within the past year or two.
A police chief hears from his military son, killed in Afghanistan. A general contractor hears from a man who died while under his employment. A woman hears from her sister who battled cancer. Another woman hears from her deceased mother. There are a few others who, unbeknownst to each other, are blessed with a minute or two of talk time with those on the “other side.” The questions from those living are expected.
What’s it look like?
My childhood. It’s awesome. Love, everything is just…love.
One person who recently lost someone but does not get a phone call is Sully Harding. After a stint in the air force, and then prison, Sully returns to his hometown of Coldwater just in time for what seems to be either the greatest miracle or the most diabolical hoax ever. The widowed ex-pilot/ex-convict not only does not get a call but is about as skeptical as they come. But when his son starts asking why his mom is not calling from heaven like those others, Sully is driven to prove this thing either true or false.
Now working for the smalltown newspaper, Sully finds that the inner workings of the print business provide access to information that just might find the missing link that ties all these phone calls together. It involves cell phone carriers, amount of time since death, and a few other things that are too similar to ignore.
Before I continue, I must promise to warn you when there are spoilers approaching. So don’t worry, spoiler warnings will be provided. Now, back to the review…
Option 1. The calls in the story are really from heaven.
Option 2. The calls in the story are not from heaven.
To go with Option 1 means taking on a tremendous challenge, such as where to end the story, where to go from there, how many sequels, how many unanswered questions from readers, what gives Albom the authority, and many more.
To go with Option 2 means taking on a tremendous risk of disappointing those readers who either believe or very much want to believe that they will one day experience such an afterlife. Option 2 also means you must explain what is really happening that is causing people to believe they are getting phone calls from loved ones, calls in which every single person receiving the calls will swear to no end that it is legitimate. And we, as the reader, are allowed first-hand access to these phone calls. We get to hear the questions from the living and the answers from the dead.
Various religious leaders convene for a round table (it was probably a round table) discussion about the validity of the calls as well as what to do next. Some of the religious readers are more concerned with exactly which faction was first to get a call and less concerned with investigating the legitimacy of the calls.
News outlets are dispatched to report on the phenomenon in Coldwater. Amy Penn, who arrives first and gets in the deepest, is a veteran reporter who hasn’t had the career she hoped for, but this story stands to be the one that makes her a national name. Eventually, she gets to the point where she has to decide about her own ethics, whether she is covering or exploiting a story and the people behind it. Also covering the story is a standard, white-haired “newspaper man,” Elwood Jupes, who has been writing about the town about as long as there has been a town. Of course he’s got a nose for news, and he’s going to sniff out the truth.
The First Phone Call from Heaven also features many interesting facts regarding the history of telephone communication, including those other than Alexander Graham Bell who were also interested in transmitting sound over great distances. Being not only a history but a technology buff, I greatly enjoyed that half of the book. Once the story was over, I have to admit that I gained more enjoyment from the non-fiction than the fiction.
First, I don’t ever want to see the name “Sully” used for a military man. You can find someone ranging from a character on M*A*S*H, “The Fighting Sullivans, Avatar, Dr. Quinn: Medicine Woman, Bones, Commando, Rescue Me, Rules of Engagement, and I’m sure there are dozens more. Just let it go, okay? And to make it worse, Albom went with the obvious last name of “Harding” for not just military but a widower who is skeptical and practical about God and heaven. The only name more obvious might have been “Rocky Athiest.” Names are important, and getting them right allows a reader to feel like the emergency brake has been released before you hit the highway. This name, however, slowed me down every time I had to see it again.
Of the 336 pages and a little more than 82,000 words, about half are spent on the techno-history stuff previously mentioned. While I already admitted to enjoying that half of the book, it robbed me of about half of a story, leaving me feeling as if just not enough happened in the “story” I signed up for.
I was not thrilled with the point-of-view shifts throughout the story. For a narrator to be completely omniscient almost feels too easy, taking a bit of a burden off a writer to really work at composing a story. However, omniscient is also the only possible way to have more than one character give a reader any chance of getting multiple, “definite” phone calls. We can’t possibly eavesdrop on more than one character’s phone conversations unless one other, neutral character happens to show up at everyone’s home or place of business when they all get their calls from heaven. While understandably necessary, it still feels as if I were duped.
I also felt duped by the circumstances that put “Sully” in prison for nearly a year. I will only say that it involved an accident, a death, and a question of proper protocol and procedure. While I completely trust Albom’s research regarding whether or not a real air force pilot would have been incarcerated for what Sully had done, I have trouble believing that evidence that might possibly have acquitted him would have been so easily lost or destroyed.
A minor annoyance was an element of the climax, in which a snowstorm blankets the town of Coldwater, throwing a town-sized monkey wrench into the efforts of Sully and others to prove if the phone calls were real or fake. The snowstorm in question was a whopping 5 inches of snow. Now don’t get me wrong, in New Jersey, schools would be closed for at least a day, maybe three. I’ve seen New Jersey schools close before the first flake arrived, acting on forecast alone. However, you’re going to have a tough time convincing me that a town in Michigan can’t handle five inches of snow. Coldwater was in a panic, trying to borrow snow plows from neighboring towns while at least one resident drove off the road and onto a frozen lake, helplessly watching and waiting for his car to break, or not break through the ice and sink.
Fair warning – I am about to enter spoiler territory. Before I do so, I have to point out that greatly enjoyed Albom’s last book, The Time Keeper. It also involved spirituality, the concept of heaven or an afterlife, and it also mixed in some historically significant facts regarding inventions that counted time. In fact, that book inspired a short story I wrote called “What is Written,” and is the first of 13 stories in my collection called When the Mirror Breaks.
Now – spoilers.
Getting back to Options 1 and 2, readers have an obligation to search for their own clues, make predictions, and adjust as the story wears one. Eventually, I reached my own prediction regarding those two options, and I came up with only one logical conclusion NOT for what the reality of an afterlife might be but for the “reality” that a writer might choose for fiction. I knew that Albom was not going to have characters actually talk to the afterlife because it would just open up too big a debate that few writers are capable of having. It’s the kind of story that is always – and I mean always followed by something to make you think it might be real but it might not be, but the “might not” is the overwhelming likelihood, and that’s what happens here.
So how does he explain the calls? A cruel but “well-intended” hoax. In the backstory, Sully was in the air force, flying cross country in a fighter jet when he decided to make a local pit stop to visit his wife. Upon landing at a small airport, he is given poor flight instructions from the tower, a young man in a bad mood, reasons I can’t recall. The poor directions cause Sully’s plane to collide with a small Cessna, resulting in an accident and deaths.
Sully’s wife, knowing he was on his way for a brief visit, was speeding to the airport. After the collision, Sully ejected safely and was successful in aiming his plane away from homes, where it crashed harmlessly and burned. His wife saw the smoke and drove in panic. The air traffic controller who caused the accident with poor directions fled the tower, sped away, and crashed into Sully’s wife, thus killing them both. Cut to the hoax:
The father of the deceased air traffic controller had extensive military intelligence experience. He barged into the control tower and destroyed all data that would have implicated his son and allowed Sully to take the blame for the accident.
Routine blood alcohol check showed a tiny amount in Sully’s blood, enough to determine he should not have been flying.
The hoax? Perpetrated by the father of the dead controller. He accessed voicemail of the various people in order to string together words and phrases and make it seem as if the dead were calling loved ones from heaven. He hoped to also use the voice of Sully’s wife to call him, allowing him to talk to his wife one last time. So of the seven people who received calls from heaven, they were inconsequential, innocent by-standers. The perpetrator was aiming for Sully out of guilt for the death of Sully’s wife. But Sully never got the calls. Well – maybe -
As Sully sped away from the perpetrator’s home with news of the hoax, the “snowstorm” sent him off the road and onto a frozen lake. His phone rang, and it seemed to be his wife Giselle warning him to get out of the car, despite a possible concussion, because the car was going to plunge through the ice. Sully did so, just in time. Later, after talking to the police chief, Sully realized that the perpetrator dies about an hour before the phone call from Giselle. Thus making it so only Sully got the real phone call from heaven.
I don’t like that. I don’t like that it was fake all along, but then when Sully’s life was in danger, here comes the real heavenly call. If that were the case, then why can’t all deceased call all relatives when they are in peril? For me, that was Albom’s way of satisfying the “believers” who were going to be mega-pissed off when they realized that nobody was actually getting calls from heaven. That’s a cop out.
Convoluted? You bet. Plausible? Not in the least. Acceptable for fiction? Not in my book.
Now, about Option 2, being that the calls would not be real. Once I reached that conclusion, which was about halfway through the book, I could have written the rest of it myself because I was perfectly correct as to where it was headed. Not only was I correct, but I was not happy about it because it was also the ending I was hoping Albom would have avoided. While I did not and could not predict exactly how the calls were seemingly coming from heaven, I did know it was going to be false because, let’s face it, Albom is going to write at least another book regarding God and spirituality. That’s a big market, and he’s not about to thumb his nose at those readers.
And that’s why he had no choice but to leave something a little unclear – to allow those believers to say, “See, right there, that proves it. That’s proves the calls were real.” To which I would say, “No, that proves that people often hallucinate when they are deprived of oxygen. Those hallucinations are usually about death and deceased loved ones because – let’s face it – what else or who else would we be thinking about when we get down to our last few breaths of life?
I cannot fully or honestly recommend The First Phone Call from Heaven, not unless you’re either a diehard Albom fan, which there are thousands and he’s earned them all, or you’re obsessed with reading everything and anything questioning heaven and the afterlife. If not, then I suggest browsing through Barnes and Noble on a Saturday or Sunday afternoon. You’re sure to come up with something. If not, then feel free to click here and check out some short stories that also ask questions about the afterlife. I don’t think you’ll be disappointed.