November 2018 – The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni
blog by Cindy Bushey
As a society, we tend to speak in superlatives as if no person, place, thing, or event is of worth unless described in the most glowing terms. While this hype may sell more articles and books, it eventually deprives adjectives of their importance. Extraordinary is one such adjective. We are bombarded with examples of “extraordinary athletic prowess”, “extraordinary advances”, “extraordinary heroism” until extraordinary really is not extraordinary at all and ceases to garner notice. And that’s a shame, because often the extraordinary is found hidden among the ordinary, and both are well worth our attention. Certainly, Zion’s Book Club’s November selection The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell deserves our attention on a number of levels.
Sam Hill is born with ocular albinism, a condition affecting the color if his irises. He has red eyes in a world of brown, green, and blue eyes. He is guaranteed to always be different. His mother, a deeply religious woman, takes the view that his red eyes are a God-given gift that ensures he will have an extraordinary life. Sam, however, would much prefer God to change the color of his eyes as they make him a target for bullying and abuse in the local Catholic grade school. But no amount of praying changes his irises. Contact lenses were not widely used in the late 1950s and early 1960s, and Sam’s mother would not have countenanced hiding his special gift if they were. Thankfully, he finds Ernie, another misfit since he is the only African-American child at the school. They bond quickly and defend each other against the taunts and outright attacks of other children. They are joined by Mickie, a girl with a lousy home life and a large chip on her shoulder. These three musketeers support each other ferociously through their elementary and high school years and all the attendant episodes of bigotry we readers recognize from our own school years. Along the way, we listen as they debate their faith or lack of it. As they are ready to head off for college, Sam’s father experiences a debilitating stroke causing Sam to postpone college to keep his father’s pharmacy operating. Sam does not understand how a loving God could allow his father to suffer this health crisis especially considering his mother’s constant devotion to God and prayer. He rejects her often articulated acceptance of God’s will since he can find no way to reconcile the abuse he and his friends have received or the straits in which his mother’s supposedly loving God have placed her and his father.
Ernie goes to college on a sports scholarship and focuses on business. Mickie and eventually Sam pursue college and then optometry school. Sam works overseas for almost ten years in various clinics helping underprivileged people get the health care they deserve; Mickie keeps tabs on his mom. Then his mother develops cancer and Sam comes home to find his mother’s God has again poorly repaid her devotion, and to a renewed acquaintance with his old school nemesis who has taken bullying to new dimensions. Sam must navigate new assaults and find a way to a greater understanding before he can embrace life.
By and large, Zion’s readers found this book to be an easy and fast read. The author’s use of short chapters kept our attention. His characters’ dialogue was so natural that the readers felt a part of Sam’s family, as if they were just ordinary people like us. While many readers found the story line somewhat predictable, it did an excellent job of portraying the high drama and pathos of childhood life. From our adult perspectives, some of it was a little corny and cheesy; parts seemed very long. Why did Sam run for ten years before he was ready to face his demons?
What really stood out, though, was this ordinary boy with an extraordinary condition and how his mother’s faith and his experiences shaped his character. And how doing the ordinary very well can produce extraordinary results. Indeed, our club’s discussion of the book went beyond the ordinary summation of our likes and dislikes. We explored the Catholic practice of saying the rosary employed by Sam’s mother and how repetitious prayer can produce a meditative state. Other cultures also have worry beads and the repeated chant of a mantra to enable this state. For what, then, do we ask when we pray? Is prayer an ordinary part of our lives?
We then proceeded to a spirited discussion of God’s will and how we interpret that phrase. We could not accept that God would deliberately cause Sam’s father’s stroke, his mother’s cancer, or the illnesses in any of our readers’ families. We had Sam’s problem – for God to have such illnesses or the death of children in the third world due to preventable diseases as part of his will would not compute for us with the love of God. To say that everything happens for a reason and is God’s will implies a human passivity that denies any human initiative. We believe God gave us brains to solve challenges and issues. We are all on a circular journey through time. Perhaps as we travel our ordinary paths, we proceed from our childhood faith in the goodness of God through difficult times which make us question our faith. Then we finally come round to a perspective that an omniscient God will know the challenges in our futures (without causing the circumstances of those challenges since free will trumps predestination in our belief system) and has prepared us for them. Although we often do not recognize the preparation until viewed through the 20/20 lens of hindsight and then marvel that God acts in our ordinary lives.
Having made our way through this weighty discussion, we then circled back to the book for our last thoughts. We questioned certain details like an optometrist not treating a detached retina immediately, and a first-grade student choosing to read a work of literature. The way Mr. Dugoni touched on every possible type of bullying prompted one reader to call the book Forrest Gump for Catholics. Ernie’s business acumen with computers turned a tidy investment by Sam into major wealth and had a reader renaming the novel Revenge of the Nerds. However, overall, we enjoyed the author’s writing style even though he rather conveniently tied up all the loose ends in the plot. Some final comments concerned bigotry – from personal experience, our readers could testify that when you are the odd man out, it is very unsettling and the atmosphere is conducive for bullying and bigotry. It is interesting to note that babies must be taught to love or to hate; it is not innate. The fact that children can learn to be cruel by first grade is a sad commentary on society’s inability to foster love, understanding, and tolerance. We all agreed that Mickie was a very likable character – straight shooter, street smart, and wise beyond her years at times.
All in all, this novel whose roots were based in the author’s personal life (always read the final pages in a book!) was an engaging, well-written book for most of our readers and provoked one of our longer discussions. It is not surprising that this example of the triumph of the human spirit (or was that God’s spirit) should be destined for a movie, or that one reader compared its slice of childhood life to A Prayer for Owen Meany and Catcher in the Rye. Four readers gave it two thumbs up, five gave it one thumb up, and three gave it a knuckle. No one was neutral or disliked the novel which, as a statement, is quite a good review.