The story starts with an elderly gentleman named Eddie who works as the head of maintenance at an amusement park called Ruby Pier, also known as Salty Pier. Eddie is a face known to regulars at the pier and is sometimes jokingly referred to as "Eddie Maintenance" due to the positioning of the patches on his work uniform. Eddie is able to perform his job (a job he inherited from his dad despite discontentment with life at the pier) despite a crippling leg injury he received as a soldier during World War II. Supposedly, rumors had been spread that Eddie had gotten into an altercation with a man in his platoon during the war - and "nobody knew what happened to the other guy. Nobody asked." This turns out to be foreshadowing to the time and place of the Captain's death, and foreshadowing to his Captain being the cause of his leg injury during the war in the Philippines.
On Eddie's birthday, one of the amusement park rides malfunctions because of a damaged cable, caused by a car key locking up the mechanics in the ride, and stops halfway through the ride. Two of the staff at Ruby Pier are able to rescue the passengers on the ride and then release the ride's cart for inspection- completely oblivious to Eddie's screams as he realized the cart will detach if it is released. As he realizes this, he notices a girl he'd seen before at the park (Amy/Annie), whose mother left her alone to be with her boyfriend, sitting helplessly in the exact spot the cart was set to impact. Eddie throws himself with all his might towards the girl, intending to pull her to safety. Eddie feels an exploding impact, sees a blinding flash, feels a little girl's hands in his own, and then nothingness.
Eddie then finds himself awake and uninjured and realizes that he feels young and much more energetic. He also felt calm when he landed. He meets a man known simply as "the Blue Man" who suffered from argyria caused by silver nitrate poisoning and worked at Ruby Pier's sideshow (while it was still open, during the days of Eddie's childhood) and whose real name is Joseph Corvelzchik. Through their conversation, Eddie finds out that he is dead, has gone to Heaven and has embarked on a journey through five levels of Heaven, at each step meeting another person who has had a significant impact upon his life, or upon whom he has had a significant impact. He also finds the reason for his sudden energy, youth, and stamina - in the five stages of Heaven, you will feel exactly the same way you did (young, old, healthy, sick, strong, weak) as you did when you knew the person you are meeting. Eddie asks why Joseph, whom he does not know, is his first person, and Joseph informs Eddie that he died when Eddie and his brother threw a baseball which landed in the middle of the road, this caused The Blue Man to have a heart attack and pull over the car and collapse. From this, Eddie learns his first lesson which is that there are no random events in life and all individuals and experiences are connected in some way.
The second person that Eddie meets is his former captain from the army, whom Eddie finds sitting in a tree in a Philippine rainforest. The Captain reminds Eddie of their time together as prisoners of war in a forced labor camp. Their group escaped after a lengthy period of time and burned the camp during their escape as an act of relieving some of the stress placed upon them during their long stretch in captivity. Eddie remembers that he had seen a shadow running from one of the huts that he set aflame, although he never identified the figure. The Captain confesses that he was the one who shot Eddie in the leg to prevent Eddie from chasing the shadow into the fire, which would have certainly caused Eddie's death because he promised that "no one gets left behind". This saved Eddie's life while leaving him with the lifelong injury and severe limp that Eddie repeatedly blames as the main reasons for his never achieving a life outside of Ruby Pier, a place he had grown to loathe in his old age due to his mother's failing faculties making his father's taken-over job and a life at the pier impossible to escape.
Eddie then learns how the Captain died — something he had never put much thought into before, as the men in his platoon had lost touch with each other after the war, and Eddie was in no condition at the time to fully realize what had happened after his injury. As the Captain and his men were making their escape from the prison camp, the men tended Eddie's leg in the back of the truck as the Captain cleared the path ahead. While he was scouting the road in front of the truck, the Captain stepped on a land mine that would have killed all the men had he not set it off. Instead, the battlefield became the Captain's final resting place and Eddie learns his second lesson — the importance of sacrifice, both big and small.
After this revelation, the Captain shows Eddie the true nature of his Heaven, which is not in fact the battlefield that Eddie remembers. The war-torn environment around them makes way to the most serene, beautiful nature landscape that Eddie has ever seen. Eddie looks at the Captain to see a man he hardly recognized without the layer of ash and dirt on his face - a young man in a pristine, clean army uniform who explains that for his Heaven he wished to see what the world was like before war, fighting, conflicts, and cruelty. Eddie watches the Captain walk away after he tosses Eddie his old combat helmet. Inside the helmet, Eddie finds a foreshadowing of things to come: a single picture of his late wife Marguerite, the same one he carried with him during war times.
The scene changes, and Eddie finds himself outside in a snowdrift, but he notices that the snow is neither cold nor wet. He notices a diner where he sees his father through a window and begins yelling and pleading for his attention. When his father appears to not be able to see or hear him, a well-dressed woman named Ruby appears and introduces herself to him. He assumes she must have been rich based on the manner of her clothing. She tells him that she has not always been this way and proceeds to explain to Eddie her story. Ruby tells Eddie that she had once worked as a waitress at the diner and explains that Ruby Pier was named after her by her husband Emile, who built it in tribute to her. Emile was wounded while fighting a fire that burned much of Ruby Pier and later died from pneumonia.
Ruby confesses that she picked the diner because that was where she had met Emile and wanted the diner to be a refuge for anyone who had ever been hurt in any way by Ruby Pier, which she grew to despise as it took so much away from them. This is the reason that Eddie's father, a harsh and abusive man, became a part of Ruby's Heaven. Ruby teaches Eddie to release his anger and forgive his father for all the trouble and hurt he had caused, only after she showed him the true cause of his father's death (different from what he had always believed had happened). Mickey Shea, a man who worked on rides at Ruby Pier with Eddie's father, was at Eddie's house drunk and in a terrible emotional state. He pulls out a flask, downs it, and then proceeds to try and force himself onto Eddie's mother. Eddie's father walks in at this point and manages to stop the drink fueled rape, then chases Mickey all the way to the pier, where Mickey jumps into the freezing water as an attempt to evade him, even though unable to swim. Eddie's father jumps in after Mickey and saves him instead as they had long been friends and he felt he owed him despite his recent drunken behavior towards his wife. Eddie's father later dies after falling ill due to being in the freezing water when he rescued Mickey. Ruby tells Eddie that he needs to forgive his father and tells him that hatred was a deadly weapon, "We think it attacks the person we hate, but hatred has a curved blade, it also attacks us". Then Eddie moves on to another heaven.
Eddie now awakens in a room with several doors. Behind each of the doors there is a wedding from a different culture and Eddie meets his late wife, Marguerite, in one of the weddings. They spend an extended period together, moving from one wedding to the next and catching up on all the things they had not been able to share since Marguerite's death. They remember their own wedding, and in the end, Marguerite teaches Eddie that love is never lost in death, it just moves on and takes a different form. He begs her forgiveness for never making more of his life, never leaving his job at the pier, and for not giving her a better life she so richly deserved. However she answers that she loved the fairground and their life on the pier, and the only thing she regretted was them not being able to have any children. He replies that all he would've changed is to have had even more time together with her, for it not to have been cut short like it was by her early death.
Marguerite's love for weddings comes from the look in all the brides and grooms' eyes right before the ceremony; the shared feeling that their love will without a doubt break all the records. Marguerite asks Eddie at one point if he believed they had that; he simply replied, "We had an accordion player", to which they both laugh. (Eddie and Marguerite's wedding was on the rented top floor of a Chinese restaurant and was very low-budget, but the couple hold nothing but fond memories of the occasion - in Eddie's house, Dominguez finds a case of sentimental objects, including a restaurant menu from their wedding night.)
When Eddie awakens to a new scene, his fifth and last, he sees children playing along a riverbed and a young Filipina girl named Tala waves and comes up to him. They attempt to understand each other, but finally Tala manages to communicate and reveal that she was the little girl from the hut that Eddie set on fire. And Eddie finally realizes that that shadow he had seen all those years ago in the burning hut, and in his nightmares for most of his life afterwards, was indeed not imagined - the little girl had been that shadow attempting to flee the flames. The girl shows Eddie the burns that she suffered when dying from the fire, as her previously clear skin turns to burnt flesh and scars. Eddie is absolutely distraught and breaks down, both cursing and asking God "why?", then further on begging for God's forgiveness. The little girl walks into the river and hands him a stone and asks him to "wash" her like the other children in the river are doing to one another. Eddie is puzzled, tells her he doesn't know how, but then slowly attempts to do as she asks. He dips the stone in the water and starts to scrape off the injuries he had inflicted on her; and soon to his surprise Tala's wounds begin to clear until she is freed of all the scars.
Eddie then asks Tala if she knows if he was able to save the little girl he attempted to save before his death. He tells her he fears that he failed to save her and he remembers feeling the little girl's hands in his just before his death. But Tala tells him he did indeed manage to save her, he had actually pushed her out of the way, and then reveals that it was her (Tala's) hands that Eddie had felt instead as she pulled him safely up to Heaven. So in reality, Eddie did manage to save the girl at Ruby Pier. Tala teaches Eddie that his life was not for nothing and that its purpose was to protect all the many children at Ruby Pier through his care for the safety of the rides. In this way, Tala explains, he also managed to atone every day for her unnecessary death.
In the end, it shows that Eddie's Heaven was the Stardust Band Shell, where he met Marguerite. And is shown a vision of all the many people he saved along the years by his maintenance work, and consequently all their children's children down the generations. For he wants everyone to be free of accidents, everyone safe. He is once again told that every life touches another and that everything is connected, it is all one big life.
He is also one of the five people to be met by the girl(Amy/Annie) whose life he saved when she dies...
The protagonist and main character around who the story centers; at the start of the story, he is killed on his 83rd birthday. When he awakes in heaven, he is taken on a journey to meet five people whose lives intertwined with his in many ways which he never expected. As an adult he wanted to work as an engineer.
Eddie's wife who he met at Ruby Pier and married after returning from World War II. Eddie would always remember "her waving over her shoulder, her dark hair falling over one eye." Marguerite has "olive skin" and "dark coffee eyes." She dies at the age of forty-seven of a brain tumor.
Joseph Corvelzchik, The Blue Man:
Joseph's skin had been turned blue when he was a boy because of repeated ingestion of silver nitrate, thought to be an effective medication at the time. He had been given this medication to cure his "nervousness" and bed-wetting at a late age, and Joseph simply attributed all the side effects to not ingesting enough. Handicapped by this disfigurement, Joseph eventually made a life for himself at Ruby Pier.Joseph is a "middle-aged man with narrow, stooped shoulders, naked from the waist up. His belly sagged over his belt. His hair was closely cropped. His lips were thin and his face was long and drawn." He dies of a heart attack because of Eddie, when Eddie tried to get a ball off the streets and causes him to swerve his car to avoid hitting Eddie.
The Captain: Eddie's commanding officer at war. He has a "full head of dark hair" and looked to be "only in his 30s." The Captain saved Eddie's life by shooting him in the leg. He died by stepping on a land mine while checking to ensure if there was a clear path ahead for his men.
Ruby: A woman for whom Ruby Pier is named by her fiance Emile. Ruby's face was "gaunt, with sagging cheeks, rose-colored lipstick, and tightly pulled-back white hair." She wore "wire-rimmed spectacles over narrow blue eyes." She wore "a dress made of silk and chiffon with a bib-like bodice stitched with white beads and topped with a velvet bow just below her neck." Her skirt had "a rhinestone buckle and snaps and hooks up the side" while also holding a "parasol with both hands." She was a widow in her fifties.
Emile: Ruby's husband, who also created the original Ruby Pier. He wore "a chalk-stripe suit and a derby hat." He had neatly cut dark hair and a mustache that covered a constant smile. Emile was known for "his heavy, confident laughter" and being "a spender and a risk taker." He was injured in a big fire trying to save Ruby Pier from being destroyed.
Eddie's mother: Eddie's mother was known for her tenderness" towards Eddie and his brother Joe. She lived in a daze after the death of Eddie's father.
Eddie's father: He abused Eddie his entire life. He smoked cigars and was a card player. Eddie's father was remembered for his "discipline" or "violence" and "denial of affection" or "silence." He dies at the age of fifty-six of pneumonia.
Mickey Shea: He is a family friend. He worked with Eddie's father "fixing rides at Ruby Pier." Mickey is "fat, wears suspenders and is always singing Irish songs. Mickey attempted to rape Eddie's mother because of loneliness and depression. Mickey and Eddie's father fought, and Mickey was almost killed by Eddie's dad, but eventually, Eddie's dad ended up saving Mickey from drowning in the ocean, causing the pneumonia that killed Eddie's father".
Dominguez: He is Eddie's friend and coworker at Ruby Pier. He is "a lanky, bony-cheeked young man." He is planning to go to Mexico with his wife Theresa and eventually takes Eddie's job as head of maintenance.
Willie: Willie works the Freddy's Free Fall at Ruby Pier.
Amy: Amy or Annie is the "little girl with a pipe-cleaner animal". She is standing on the "ride's metal base" that one of Freddy's Free Fall's carts comes crashing down on. Eddie doesn't know whether or not he saved her until the end of the book.
Tala: Tala is a young girl Eddie sees in a burning hut. She is a Filipina, maybe five or six years old with "a beautiful cinnamon complexion, hair the color of dark plum, a small flat nose, full lips that spread joyfully over her gapped teeth, and the most arresting eyes."
Nicky: Nicky is a young man who visited Ruby Pier, and practically the reason why Eddie died. He dropped his car keys in the Freddy's Free Fall ride, causing its gears to jam and its cable to snap. Nicky claims to be Ruby's great-grandson.
"It is because the human spirit knows, deep down, that all lives intersect. That death doesn't just take someone, it misses someone else, and in the small distance between being taken and being missed, lives are changed."
"Sacrifice is a part of life. It's supposed to be. It's not something to regret. It's something to aspire to. Little sacrifices. Big sacrifices."
"...that each affects the other and the other affects the next, and the world is full of stories, but the stories are all one."
There are various themes in the book, with the overall theme of "there are no random acts in life".
The theme of the book changes as Eddie progresses through heaven, each theme being the lesson Eddie learns from each of the people he meets in heaven:Blue Man: Everything happens for a reason. There are no random events in life. All lives and experiences are interconnected in some way, and even the little things you do can affect other people's lives and experiences dramatically. The Blue Man states "... the human spirit knows, deep down, that all lives intersect" (48).The Captain: Sacrifices are a part of life. Everyone makes these sacrifices. Some sacrifices are big, and others are day-to-day small sacrifices, but they all make an impact in other people's lives.Ruby: The importance of releasing anger and granting forgiveness. There is always more than one side to a story. Marguerite: The power of love, even after death. There are multiple forms of love, some stronger than others. Lost love is the strongest kind of love, the kind that can be felt even across enormous distances.Tala: There's always a purpose for your life. You live for a reason the same way that people die for a reason. Where you are today is a combination of all your past actions, decisions, and the way the people around you have affected you.
A made-for-television film adaptation of the novel, starring Jon Voight as Eddie, was released in 2004 and is available on DVD. Aside from a few details about Eddie's life and a more chronological telling of the story, the film is very faithful to the book, as Mitch Albom himself wrote the teleplay.