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Meet our narrator, Susie "like the fish" Salmon (1.1). She's been dead since December 6, 1973. She was fourteen years old when she was raped and murdered by her neighbor. Here's how it happened. It's a cold snowy afternoon. After school, Susie takes a shortcut through the cornfield to her suburban Pennsylvania home. Mr. Harvey (who she recognizes but doesn't know) is in the cornfield. He's built an underground shelter, with a door that's covered with earth. He piques Susie's curiosity and lures her into the hole. She quickly learns this is a mistake, and he rapes and then kills her. Right now she's in heaven, which she soon learns is her personal heaven – everybody gets one when they die.
On December 9, the detective in charge of Susie's case, Len Fenerman, calls Susie's mom and dad, Abigail and Jack Salmon, and tells them they've found Susie's elbow bone. From her heaven, Susie watches her parents in bed, unable to talk. It begins to storm. The next morning, Jack breaks the news of the elbow bone to his other daughter, Lindsey, who's thirteen. She throws up. Later that day the police try digging up the cornfield, even though the snow and rain have screwed up their crime scene.
Susie's schoolbooks and class notes are found, including a love letter from Ray Singh, Susie's first and only love. He'd slipped it into her books the day before she died. She didn't get to read it when she was alive. Ray has a perfect alibi, but the rumors wreak havoc on his school life. Susie watches with frustration as her murderer, Mr. Harvey, who builds dollhouses for a living, calmly goes on with his life. On December 15th, Len Fenerman tells the Salmons that Susie is probably dead.
We jump around a bit in time. When Susie leaves Earth, she touches Ruth Connors, a school friend, and Ruth becomes obsessed with her. Mr. Harvey collapses the underground room where he raped and killed Susie. Then he puts her "body parts" (4.1) in a bag, which he puts in his garage, while he goes up for a shower. Susie will learn later that he killed other girls before her. In the shower, Mr. Harvey thinks about how nice it was to kill Susie. Mr. Harvey puts the bag with Susie's body parts into a safe and dumps the safe into a sinkhole about eight miles from their Pennsylvania neighborhood.
On December 23, Susie's dad smashes some miniature ships a the bottle, which Susie often helped him with. He sees Susie's projected reflection in each piece of glass. Afterwards, Susie's four-year-old brother Buckley finds his dad and comforts him. Meanwhile, Mr. Harvey gets the idea to build a tent-like structure. After Jack Salmon breaks the ships in bottles, he happens to walk to Mr. Harvey's back yard and finds him making this odd structure.
Jack Salmon helps Mr. Harvey assemble the structure and talks to him. Susie is trying to send her dad ghostly messages, and she must have succeed because Jack begins to suspect Mr. Harvey of Susie's murder. He calls Detective Len Fenerman with his suspicions. Len Fenerman investigates. He thinks Harvey is weird, but doesn't find any evidence to make him a suspect. On Christmas day Samuel Heckler comes to visit Lindsey, beginning their romance. Meanwhile, Jack tries to teach Buckley how to play Monopoly and explain to him that his sister is dead.
Susie remembers hanging out with Ray for the first time, and meeting Ruth, after Ruth is harassed by teachers because of her realistic drawings of nude women. These things happened two weeks before she died. After Susie's death, Ruth spends lots of time in the cornfield in the early mornings. One day she meets Ray there, and they become friends.
Susie keeps a close eye on her killer. She learns that Mr. Harvey has dreams of killing women and children. She learns that he moved around a lot as a child, that his dad build strange buildings from scavenged material, and that his dad abandoned his mother on the side of the road when Harvey was a child.
Susie's funeral service takes place two months after her death. Susie's grandmother (Abigail Salmon's mom) Lynn has flown in for the service. Mr. Harvey shows up to the funeral. Lynn and Lindsey don't recognize who he is, but they realize he's Susie's killer.
In the summer of 1974, Susie watches as Lindsey and Samuel begin a sexual relationship at the Gifted and Talented Symposium. Susie also learns that Ruth desires women in a sexual way, and that Ruth has become devoted to writing poetry about Susie.
Meanwhile, there's no progress on Susie's case. Jack Salmon is convinced of Mr. Harvey's guilt, and he calls the police constantly. Eventually, Len Fenerman tells him to stop, because there's no evidence to accuse Harvey. That night, Jack sees a light in the cornfield from his window. He goes out there with his baseball bat and almost attacks Susie's friend Clarissa, who's out there waiting for her boyfriend Brian Nelson. In an attempt to protect his girlfriend, Brian takes the baseball bat and beats Jack with it, landing him at the hospital. At the hospital, Abigail Salmon runs into Len Fenerman and they begin an affair.
That fall, Lindsey gets the idea from her dad that she should break into Mr. Harvey's house and find evidence to connect him with Susie's murder. Around Thanksgiving, she does it. When Lindsey is in Harvey's house, Susie learns about Harvey's other victims. Meanwhile Lindsey finds the evidence she needs and escapes just before Harvey catches her.
That afternoon, while some other policeman are interviewing Mr. Harvey about Lindsey's break-in, Len Fenerman is continuing his affair with Abigail Salmon at the mall. As they begin to make love, Mr. Harvey packs up and flees town. The following summer, Abigail leaves home and family. She spends some time in her father's cabin and then moves to California and takes a job at a winery.
In the fall, Grandma Lynn calls Jack and says she's moving in. That December, Mr. Harvey has been gone over a year, and nobody has been able to find him. Susie feels sorry for Len Fenerman because he didn't solve the crime in time or get the lady. (Apparently, when Abigail left for California, she cut all ties to Len.) Len feels extremely guilty for not solving Susie's case.
Ray, Susie's crush, gets handsomer and handsomer as the years go by, and he leaves for college. Ruth moves to New York City and when she's not working, she roams the streets. When she sees a place where a dead girl was killed, she can see what happened. In December 1988, Len Fenerman learns that Susie's charm was found near the body of murdered girl found in 1976. Susie's dog Holiday dies and comes to Susie's heaven.
When Lindsey is 21, she and Samuel are riding a motorcycle back from her graduation. They have matching spiky haircuts. About eight miles from their turn-off, it's raining so hard they have to pull off the road. They find an abandoned Victorian house in the distance. Inside, they make love and get engaged. They decide to buy the house and live in it. Then they run home in the rain to Jack, half naked.
Shortly after, in New York, Ruth learns that the sinkhole, where she correctly suspects Mr. Harvey buried Susie's body, is to be filled in. So, she makes plans to return to the Philadelphia suburb.
At the Salmon residence, Buckley tells his dad he wants more attention, and begs his dad to focus on him instead of Susie. Jack has a heart attack and is rushed to the hospital. Abigail hears about it and finally comes back to her family. She and Jack fall back in love in Jack's hospital room.
Meanwhile, Mr. Harvey is headed back to the old neighborhood, haunted by dreams of Lindsey Salmon escaping his clutches before. Ruth and Ray are reunited, and they drive out to the sinkhole. The same day, Mr. Harvey makes it to the neighborhood, but a suspicious cop makes him leave. He passes the sinkhole when Ruth is standing near the road, next to the car she and Ray are driving. When she sees Mr. Harvey's car, she sees all the women he killed. She passes out.
At that moment Susie falls from heaven and borrows Ruth's body. She gets Ray to take her across the way to Hal Heckler's empty bike shop and they make love. While Susie is in Ruth's body, Ruth hangs out in heaven with the dead girls she's been memorializing. Then she and Susie switch back. Also on that day, Jack Salmon is released from the hospital and there is a poignant family reunion back at the Salmon house.
As the novel comes to a close, we learn that Susie has moved on up to "wide wide heaven" and has made peace with her newfound existence. She gives us a final glimpse of Mr. Harvey. He's about to attempt another attack, but is foiled by a falling icicle. He plunges to his death into a ravine. Then Susie shows us Lindsey, Samuel, and their new baby, Abigail Suzanne, and that's the end of the story.