The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni

Thanks to being born with red eyes, a condition known as ocular albinism, life for Sam Hill has never been easy. Fortunately he grew up in a loving home, where his mother continually assured him that he was going to have an extraordinary life. However, his life at school and in public were much different. From his first day of school, when the Catholic school’s head nun refused to admit him, through his high school graduation where he was overlooked as valedictorian, despite having the best grades, he has had to put up with bullying and discrimination. Classmates called him “Devil Boy” and “Sam Hell” and not only refused to play or interact with him, but actively bullied him.

His devout mother called his condition “God’s Will,” but Sam has never been sure. What he does believe is that God or the Blessed Mother or some form of divine intervention must have been responsible for Ernie Caldwell and Mickie Kennedy attending his elementary school and becoming his two best friends. The three outcasts band together throughout childhood and continue to be a support system for each other into the present day. Without his two friends, Sam is not sure where he would be today.

After some foreshadowing in the book’s foreword, the book alternates between Sam’s past and present life. Sam’s childhood nemesis David Bateman appears in both time periods and while not the entire focus of the novel, past and present revolve around many of the actions taken by David and Sam. And create a visual of how their relationship has been formed. Ultimately, a surprising turn of events causes Sam to question his life’s choices and eventually step away from the life he has created, seeking purpose and meaning elsewhere.

All the elements of the book come together to create a page turner that readers will find difficult to put down. I was immensely impressed with how the story came together. Good pacing, foreshadowing and alternating between past and present provide the hook to make most readers eager to finish.

While a completely separate book, without many plot similarities, Robert Dugoni’s novel reminded me a bit of LESSONS IN CHEMISTRY by Bonnie Garmus. Especially because of the character. Sam, his mother, Ernie and Mickie are well developed, quirky, strong and mostly likable. I felt the same way about the characters in Garmus’ popular novel. Dugoni does a great job building his characters and sharing their motivations and desires. Most readers can only hope for family and friends as great as Sam’s. Dugoni shares at the end of the novel that his mother and brother provided the inspiration for the novel. That makes sense when considering how much the characters are the doorway into the book.

You will not want to miss The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell. It is truly EXTRAORDINARY.

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Review written by: Jeana Gockley, Joplin Public Library Director.