Monday, April 30, 2018

Book Review: "The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell" by Robert Dugoni

Sam Hill's birth in 1957 caused quite a stir, as he was born with ocular albinism, which left him with red pupils. While his religiously devout mother viewed his eyes as evidence of the extraordinary potential his life holds. That's not the unanimous view of everyone in their community, however—his Catholic school classmates refer to him as "Devil Boy."

Sam's mother was determined that her son live life with great gusto, and not be discouraged by those who treat him badly or try to keep him from the opportunities given to every other child. Sam becomes the target of a trio of school bullies who wish to do him harm because of his eyes. But while his mother believes that events in Sam's life are determined by God's will, Sam isn't quite so sure that God would want him to suffer in fear and loneliness.

It's the arrival of Ernie Cantwell, the only African American kid in school, who first makes Sam believe people could be heaven-sent. Ernie becomes Sam's closest friend and confidante, and the two help each other battle those driven by fear and prejudice. And when brash Mickie Kennedy arrives at school, she is tougher and stronger than many of the boys, and proves that you really can go through life not caring what people think.

The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell follows Sam as he travels from childhood to adulthood, experiences the flush of first love and lust, is buoyed by the intense loyalty and love of his closest friends, and, for the first time, realizes that God's will isn't always positive. When a tragedy hits close to home, he has to change the course of his life and become the man his mother always knew he would be, and he learns to keep people at a distance so he doesn't get hurt—although that doesn't always guarantee emotional safety.

This book chronicles 40 years of Sam's life, relationships, work, love, family, and the bonds of friendship. It's the story of faith, disbelief, loyalty, and the struggle between right and wrong. But more than that, it's the story of one extraordinary boy who grows into an extraordinary man.

I thought this was a really great book. Sam is a fascinating yet flawed character who is able to find strength and courage in the face of tremendous adversity, thanks to an incredible support system of his parents and his friends. I grew very attached to these characters and found myself worrying about and cheering them, and wishing they'd say the things they needed to, to those they needed to.

I have seen many people wax poetic about Robert Dugoni's Tracy Crosswhite series, although I've not read any of them. I was really impressed with his storytelling in this book—in some ways it felt a little like John Irving's A Prayer for Owen Meany or something similar. It's a book that touched me emotionally and made me think at the same time.

My one criticism of the book is that it was a bit melodramatic at times, and I felt that a subplot involving the return of a figure from Sam's childhood really wasn't necessary. But beyond that, this is a book which grabbed me from the very first page, and I read it in just a few hours while on a long flight. And I may have brushed away more than a tear or two...

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