THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF SAM HELL: My measuring stick regarding coming-of-age novels.

Posted: February 28, 2018 in Uncategorized

Writing a coming-of-age novel is one of the trickiest endeavors an author might involve themselves into. Getting into the mind and heart of a character who is trying to figure out their way through life at a young age requires a great deal of authenticity. There is something special about it all.
„Special” is also the first word that comes to my mind in regard to the latest coming-of-age novel that I have had the privilege, and even blessing, to read.
The novel is called THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF SAM HELL, and while it is not the first effort by bestselling author Robert Dugoni, it is his first foray into a different genre(thriller buffs might know Mr. Dugoni for such books as THE JURY MASTER and MY SISTER’S GRAVE, the first books from the DAVID SLOANE and TRACY CROSSWHITE series respectively).

For a first venture into a different genre, THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF SAM HELL is impressive. I felt it from the description of the plot, and I was honored to receive an ARC of the book. With the not-that-subtle disclaimer out of the way, the following is my argument in favor of the statement above.

This book could’ve been just another small-town Catholic school tale. But Sam Hill has ocular albinism. A rare condition that gives him red eyes. And the cruel nickname “Devil Boy”, from the pupils of the Catholic school where he studied as a child. Raised by a devout mother and a practical-minded father, Sam goes through a great deal of bullying throughout his life, especially at the hands of his nemesis, the imposing, troubled David Freemon. Through his friends, Mickie Kennedy(a girl who always speaks her mind) and Ernie Cantwell(the only black kid at Our Lady of Mercy), Sam finds a great deal of support while dealing with Freemon and the stern, but also troubled Sister Beatrice. The bullying scenes in this book are like nothing I have ever read before. It’s harrowing, heartbreaking, but the enormity of it all never seems gratuitous. One cannot help but feel for Sam, and at the same time, commend him as he stands up to a brutal beating thinly disguised as a bicycle accident.

The “healthy perspective” that Sam Hill, nicknamed Sam Hell(from an exclamation at his birth), acquires due to his condition, called “extraordinary” by his mother Madeleine, helps him cope with a great deal of misfortune and tragedy in his life. Through a twist of fate(and there are many in this amazing book), he becomes an accomplished ophtalmologist in Burlingame, California. The way in which, as an adult, he is haunted by his traumatic past will have a decisive impact on him.

Each of the characters in this novel have their imperfections, which is another reason to love it. From Sam himself, who is constantly confronted with difficult choices, to his amazing parents, to Ernie and Mickie, you will end up wanting to have these people over for a cup of something and a chat. In my case, it really happened.

Faith plays a central part of the story without this being a preachy novel whatsoever. In fact, a further point of brilliance is the manner in which it is all addressed. The fact that Sam Hill endures bullying in a Catholic school is not meant to be a barb toward Catholicism or any religion, for that matter. Sister Beatrice might be a practicing Catholic who does nothing to stop the bullying, but Sam’s mother is a practicing Catholic who never loses faith in God, the Blessed Virgin, and her son. This might be the most respectful, dignified, and even-handed treatment of faith and religion I’ve ever encountered in a work of fiction.

Sam Hell has an extraordinary life, indeed. His heartrending story, masterfully told by Mr. Dugoni, is the coming-of-age novel that has the most relevance in my own life. And I’ve read a handful of them. Thus, it should not come as a surprise that THE EXTRAORDINARY LIFE OF SAM HELL is officially my measuring stick when it comes to coming-of-age novels. For real. If someone recommends me a good coming of age novel, from now on, I will as if it’s Sam Hell good. I cannot thank you enough, Mr. Dugoni! Ten out of five for a book that has increased my soul!

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