Before I first stumbled upon The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell by Robert Dugoni, I had only the vaguest idea of what ocular albinism was. I knew little beyond the words ocular, meaning related to the eyes, and albinism, meaning a lack of pigment. Regardless, I had been on the market for a new realistic-fiction book, so I was quite excited to read this one.
Born with red eyes, people think Sam is a devil baby, and are scared to be near him for fear of being cursed, particularly within his family’s insular Catholic community. When he starts elementary school, this fear and ignorance turns into bullying from both students and teachers alike. It takes a lifelong toll on his self esteem, affecting his relationships as an adult. His life is defined by his eyes, and ultimately he becomes an ophthalmologist, helping others with their eyes. His ocular albinism plays a role, directly or not, in every aspect of his life. It defines his choices and friendships. The story is told from the point of view of adult Sam reflecting back on his life.
This book wrestles with a number of themes: loss of faith, facing old demons, loss, discrimination, and the circle of life.. Somehow, these themes are woven together in such a way that they feel natural within the story. The chapters are short and engaging, and the book is split into multiple parts, based on experiences that defined Sam’s childhood. The characters are also written with expertise. Sam’s character development throughout the story, moving from elementary school to adulthood, is well executed. His core traits stay the same while he matures and loses his innocence on the cruelty of the world. His childhood story gives depth to his adult persona, and allows the reader to build both sympathy and empathy for him.
I thought this book was excellent. Its topic is quite specific, as I’ve not seen or read any other books about ocular albinism, but its themes are universal. Its creation of multiple personas for Sam, both adult and child, is quite clever, and its use of time jumps as transitions makes it fun to read. Although a great story, it does contain some mature themes and is definitely not a light read. The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell is worth the read, and I highly recommend it.