The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell


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The book is split into seven parts.  Each parts begins with a time period between 1989 and 1999 when the main character is around the age of 30 to 40.  The chapters within the parts are mostly very brief which keeps the pace flowing quickly because, like potato chips, it's easy to say just one more.  The rest of the each part is told in flashbacks.  It is easy to get absorbed in the flashback and forget that there is a more current story line.  I found both timelines equally engaging.

The majority of Part 1 takes place when Sam is six years old.  We are only told that Sam has red eyes - not that he's a genius or exceptionally mature.  Some of his responses and actions seem well above a six year old's maturity and ability.  I really liked this book so I didn't mind overlooking that possible exaggeration.

On a scale of 1 - 5 (5 being a lot of examples/instances):

Sex:  3

Religion:  5

Gruesome:  2

Suspense:  2

Morality:  4

Traditional:  4

Sex - veiled office jokes, reference to golf clubs (P2, Ch1)  Auto shop men talk lewdly about a woman customer using car terms (dipstick). (P2, Ch5)  Intentional switch of words "virginal" for "vaginal" in reference to birth. (P3, Ch15)  Teenagers talking around virginity and locker room talk. (P4, Ch6)  A 17 year-old boy considers a well-endowed 18 year-old girl and his body's natural response to her. (P4, Ch. 11 & 13)  A slightly older girl seduces a virgin boy. (P4, Ch17)  A friend counsels/discusses one's sexual relationship with a third party. (P4, Ch19)  A girl describes how she feels when having sex. (P5, Ch2)  Sex with details (P7, Ch6)

Religion - There is a steady does of religion throughout the novel.  Sam's mom is a devout Catholic and often refers to God's will.  Sam's first visit to church was at thee days old. (B1, Ch2)  Sam's first steps were for a rosary and his first word was "Mary". (B1, Ch7)  Mom says nightly prayers. (P1, Ch12) Sam stops believing in God when his dad has a stroke. (P3, Ch1)  List of roles of mass performed by students. (P3, Ch9)  A boy goes to church when he questions his faith and prays to the Blessed Virgin Mary. (P5, Ch19)  Boy extinguishes someone else's prayer candle when he gives up hope. (P5, Ch20) History of Lourdes - pilgrimage site in France. (P7, Ch9)

Gruesome - The book opens in 1989 with the main character about to get a vasectomy - minor gruesome references. Figurative language (P2, Ch1) - "I'd rather pull my uterus out through my nostrils with a coat hanger." There are a couple of physical fights but without gruesome details.  Police officer brutality. (P4, Ch1)

Suspense - there were several pieces that had me curious about how it would work out but nothing that kept me up past bedtime reading just so I could find out

Morality - High-school boy comes home drunk. (P5, Ch5)  Strong language against a racist. (P5, Ch6)  Rough language between friends. (P5, Ch25)

Traditional - very traditional on a 1963 level, good table manners, family prayer, etc. (P1, Ch11)  A few, minor-used curse words. (P4, Ch7)  Rough teen language. (P4, Ch15)

P1 Ch9 - I thought this was the beginning of an inclusion debate which I expected to come back to several times throughout the book.  Sam's differences and resulting treatment were certainly a recurring theme, but it was never again as preachy as it was in this chapter.  It is a debate that continues today...Sam's mom felt he had the right to be treated as a normal child but the principal worried that his presence in the classroom would be too much of a distraction.  While Sam certainly could handle conducting himself in a quiet, low-key manner there are plenty of children in mainstream classrooms today who can't regulate their behavior enough to participate in a class without disruption.  So the other side of the debate is - how much does including the child with a different-ability harm the other students by reducing their instruction time to deal with the different child's behaviors.

I enjoyed the entire book and especially the scene between Sam and Ernie as boys discussing where they were from and what their dads do. (P1, Ch16)  It was very humorous.  Another gem I found was when Sam's friends wanted to egg the house of a racist but Sam was wise and advised, "...he would be too stupid to understand why we egged his house even if we did.  In his mind, it would only justify his belief system." (P5, Ch6)

Throughout the book you know that a relationship is building from the early, youth years.  You also know, due to the glimpses of the adult life, that it doesn't last.  So when the relationship finally began (P5, Ch25) it was a little anti-climactic.  But, of course, there is a happy ending.

Discussion Questions

Sam reflects on something his father once told him, "There comes a time in every man's life, when he stops looking forward and starts looking back." (P1, Ch1)  Have you reached that point yet?  When?

When in your life have you been told something was God's will?  Did you believe it?

Sam's mom liked telling the story of his arrival. (P1, Ch2)  Do you have a birth story to tell?

Sam sprinkles water on the soap to make his mom think he washed his hands.  (P1, Ch2)  What were your youthful tricks or what tricks have you busted your children doing?

Dad (Maxwell) thought Mom (Madeline) made it worse for Sam by going to the news. (P1, Ch12)  What do you think?  Have you ever gone to extremes to make something better for your child?

Have you ever been called to school because your child was in a fight?  Share the experience.  (P1, Ch17)

What did you think would happen after Sam got voted to be the lector? (P3, Ch9)

Sam was surprised his mom had been in high school theater. (P3, Ch11)  What surprised you about your parents?

Why did Sister Beatrice give Sam the Bible?  Sam thought he'd be trapped in Purgatory for "throwing out Bibles and rosaries".  (P3, Ch18)  Do you share his hesitation to throw out religious articles?

Tell the story of getting your first car - was it a surprise? (P4, Ch5)

Which story line did you enjoy more - the childhood or the grownup Sam?

We read over and over that money was tight for the Hill family.  Is it plausible due to chain pharmacies replacing independents?  But yet, Sam goes to private school, they buy a third car and hire him as a part-time pharmacy employee.  Why is it a theme?  On the converse, Mick has a hard childhood but manages to go to college and become a medical doctor - with no explanation of how that was financed.

Do you agree with how Sam's dad handled his coming home drunk?  Have you ever been the giver or receiver in a similar situation?

Did the earthquake in Part 6 resolve the situation with Eva or make it more complicated?  How important was Eva's character to the overall story?

Were you surprised at how the David Bateman situation ended as adults?  How did you expect it to resolve?

Who did you think was the other hospital patient who wanted to see Sam? (P7, Ch4)  How did you feel about the resolution with Sister Beatrice?  (P7, Ch5)  She explained she started drinking at 16 because she'd been teased as a child for buckteeth and a lisp.  Did this make her behavior towards Sam understandable or inexcusable?

While at Lourdes, Sam couldn't remember where he'd seen the statue of the Blessed Mother. (P7, Ch10)  Did you know?

What did you think was going on when Sam couldn't reach Mickie in Puerto Vallarta? (P7, Ch14)

In the Acknowledgements, the author says, "Sam wanted to believe.  He wanted to believe that God really did have a plan for him and for his life, that his hardships as a child would all help mold for him an extraordinary life.  He wanted to believe that his prayers had a purpose, that God truly is benevolent, despite so many in the world so often being malevolent.  He wanted to believe that God's will really meant something and was not just a mother's way of dismissing a curious son."  Do you think, in the end, Sam was able to maintain that belief?

Theme Ideas

Serve Manhattans, like Sam's dad drank every night. (P1, Ch2)
Serve pizza like dad suggested celebrating with after the first day of school (P1, Ch13) and Twinkies like same at at lunch. (P1, Ch 16)
Serve lasagna. (P2, Ch13)
Serve chocolate cake like Ernie's mom brought as a thank you for helping her son with reading. (P3, Ch7)
Serve chocolate chip cookies like Mrs. hill made for the boys after school on the day of the student-led Mass. (P3, Ch16)
Serve a mimic of the pharmacy reception: finger sandwiches, vegetables and dip, cheese and crackers, homemade cookies and brownies, bottles of wine, canned soft drinks, and helium balloons. (P5, Ch24)
Serve "the last supper" - Barbeque steaks, mashed potatoes, green peas, squash soup, and frosted cake. (P5, Ch25)
Serve meatloaf, potatoes and peas with a bottle of Syrah like Mickie made after they saw Sam's mom in the hospital. (P7, Ch6)
Serve Mexican food, margaritas and Corona beer like when the two couples had dinner together. (P7, Ch13)

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