The First Phone Call from Heaven
by Mitch Albom tells the story of a small town on Lake Michigan whose residents start receiving phone calls from the afterlife.
As the novel opens, Tess Rafferty of Coldwater, Michigan, is shocked when she hears a voicemail left by her mother who passed away from Alzheimer’s years earlier. Tess is the first person in town to report receiving a phone call from a dead relative, but she is certainly not alone. Soon people all over town are reporting calls from their deceased family members.
Police chief Jack Sellers has received a phone call from his dead son, Robbie. The phone call stirs up a wealth of emotions in Jack as he struggles to make sense of it. He thinks about his wife, Doreen, who succumbed to depression after Robbie’s death. He decides not to tell her about the phone call. At the same time, Katherine Yellin receives a phone call from her dead sister.
On the same day the people of Coldwater start to receive phone calls from their dead relatives, Sully Harding is released from military prison. He is met by his parents and his seven-year-old son, Jules. His wife, Gisele, had been in a coma and recently passed away. Sully goes to the funeral home to collect her ashes, overwhelmed by grief. Unsure what to do with his wife’s ashes or how to move on with his life, Sully returns home with the urn and places it on his mantle.
In an attempt to get back on his feet, Sully moves into a new apartment and starts job-hunting. He is soon confronted with the harsh realities of looking for work as an ex-convict. He finds that no one is willing to give him a chance, they simply can’t see beyond his past. Jules, who had previously been living with Sully’s parents, comes to live with him. Sully is offered a job at a local newspaper selling ads, and although he hates the work, he knows he has to take what he can get.
When Katherine Yellin stands in front of the church congregation, talking about the phone calls she has been receiving, it causes quite a stir. Pastor Warren is at a loss as to how to respond to the news. He has never heard anything like it, not from any of the neighboring congregations. He wonders if he should treat these occurrences as a miracle, that the members of his church might have been chosen for a reason.
The news quickly starts to spread far and wide, causing concern for Pastor Warren. He worries about what will happen to the small town with such a reputation. People begin making pilgrimages to Coldwater, many of them camping out on Katherine Yellin’s front lawn. The mayor, on the other hand, is thrilled with the attention the small town is receiving. He believes that the phone calls will put Coldwater on the map. The mayor calls a town meeting, where many more members of the community attest to having received phone calls.
Hearing the rumors about the phone calls, Sully makes it his mission to get to the bottom of it. His investigation starts at the town library where he meets new librarian Liz who helps him to find the obituaries of all the deceased who are making the phone calls. He notices that the same person, Maria from the funeral home, has written all of the obituaries. Upon further investigation, he discovers that Maria has recorded interviews with all of the deceased along with written transcriptions that she keeps on file in the office.
Meanwhile, phone calls continue to plague the residents of Coldwater, driving some of them mad and causing all kinds of fallout with non-believers. Spotting his opportunity, Sully sneaks into Maria’s office, nabbing the transcriptions. However, when he returns to the library to continue his research he finds that the records he is looking for are missing. Sully is confronted by Jack who accuses him of being the source of the phone calls and takes him into the police station for questioning.
After convincing Jack of his innocence and clearing his name, Sully is recommitted to his investigative efforts. He has a conversation with his father about Horace, the owner of the funeral home, and learns that he only recently came into possession of the property. He finds out the Horace has a military background and is originally from Virginia, and that he doesn’t work on Fridays. This ignites Sully’s suspicion, and he decides to visit Horace at his home.
Arriving at Horace’s farmhouse, Sully uncovers the setup that allows Horace to make the phone calls, laying his suspicions to rest. Horace confesses, claiming he uses the phone calls as a way to assuage his guilty conscience. He tells Sully that he is the one who was responsible for the plane crash that landed Sully in military prison.
In his haste to deliver the news to the people of Coldwater, Sully has a bad car accident that nearly kills him. As he hovers between life and death, he hears the voice of his wife, Gisele. He assumes it is another one of Horace’s tricks. Sully is rescued and put in an ambulance, where he learns that Horace was found dead well before he received the phone call from his wife. Sully is the only person of Coldwater to receive a real phone call from heaven.