One for the Books: Misfits find friendship

If I don’t like the characters in a novel, I usually don’t care what happens to them. But I love the characters in “The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell” by Robert Dugoni, and consequently, I eagerly followed their escapades.

Samuel Hill narrates his own story of life with a particular problem. He was born in 1957 with “ocular albinism,” a rare condition that causes him to have red eyes. It will also cause unfriendly or superstitious people to refer to him as “the devil boy” and to transform his name into “Sam Hell.”

When he’s 6 years old, his mother wants him to go to Catholic school, but the principal nun is put off by the boy’s red eyes and refuses to let him attend, saying he won’t fit in. She asserts that his “presence in the classroom could be detrimental to the learning environment of the other children.” His wonderful mom stands up for him and makes sure he gets into the school after all. But the kids all avoid him when they aren’t teasing him. It’s a lonely beginning for the little boy.

When he’s sad because the boys make fun of him, his supportive mother consoles him: “God gave you extraordinary eyes, Samuel, because he intends for you to lead an extraordinary life. … You are every bit as normal as any other boy … where it counts. Our skin, our hair, and our eyes are simply the shell that surrounds our soul, and our soul is who we are. What counts is on the inside.”

Besides the heckling, he has to bear up under some intense playground bullying. To his surprise, one boy stands up for him: Ernie, the new kid, the only Black kid in the school. And Sam finds another friend in Mickie, a girl who is also bullied. The three become lifelong friends.

When they attend college, Ernie becomes an accomplished athlete, and Sam reports on Ernie’s sport victories for the school paper. After Ernie has to endure a verbal racist assault, Mickie wants to go after the guy, but Sam says no. “That guy, he’s not the guy you have to worry about. The ones to worry about are the ones who cloak their discrimination behind some other excuse so you can’t call them out.” Ernie’s dad says, “Discrimination is difficult, because in its worst form, it is not overt. It is subtle.”

Sam tells the reader, “People weren’t wearing hooded robes and burning crosses on lawns, but that was not to say racism didn’t exist. Ernie had been taunted with the N-word on the football field and during basketball games. Once as a child he was accused of stealing in a store because the store owner believed that’s what colored people did. As we got older, Ernie and I both realized one of the reasons we spent so much time together was because we were the two kids in class most frequently discriminated against.”

And as for Mickie, “Mickie was like Ernie; she had always been there for me when I needed her, and it felt good to be there for her when she needed me. We were misfits, the three of us. I didn’t think of us that way back then, but looking back, I know now it was why we gravitated to one another.”

“Sam Hell” is the lovely story of misfits who find each other and find a place in the world where they fit in. It’s uplifting and heartwarming — my kind of story. I fell in love with the main characters: Sam, his steadfast mom, and his two best friends. There’s even a villain you will love to hate. And something about the writing made the pages just melt away.

Adult language and situations.

Happy reading!

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Mary Louise Ruehr is a books columnist for The Portager. Her One for the Books column previously appeared in the Record-Courier, where she was an editor.