“There are two novels that can change a bookish fourteen-year old’s life: The Lord of the Rings and Atlas Shrugged. One is a childish fantasy that often engenders a lifelong obsession with its unbelievable heroes, leading to an emotionally stunted, socially crippled adulthood, unable to deal with the real world. The other, of course, involves orcs.” John Rogers.
Spend any time around Breakpoint and/or the Colson Center and you will come across Richard Weaver’s maxim “Ideas have consequences” usually followed by the addendum “and bad ideas have victims.”
This maxim, as well as its addendum, is indisputable. What can be disputed is the best way to communicate good ideas. By “best” I mean the way that is most likely to inspire a person to act in conformity with what is good and true.
The default answer in Christian circles, including Breakpoint and the Colson Center is a more-or-less direct appeal to reason. We state a principle, explain what the principle means, often through the use of illustrations and/or real-world examples, point out why it’s superior to the alternatives, and then urge people to apply the principle in their own lives.
While there’s a place for this approach, it’s far from the only or even best one. Another saying you’re likely to hear around Breakpoint is one attributed to Damon of Athens in the fifth century before Christ: “Give me the songs of a people, and I care not who writes its laws.”
What’s true of politics, the subject of Damon’s saying, is even more true of personal conduct. In his 1996 book, “The Healing Power of Stories,” Daniel Taylor wrote “When I am tempted, as I always am, to put my personal advantage ahead of the common good–in my home or in society–I am little moved by abstract ethical injunctions, and actively encouraged to ‘me-firstism’ by psychological-sounding appeals to my needs and rights. But I can sometimes be nudged toward something resembling concern for others by remembering a story from long ago about wizards and hobbits.”
He’s not alone. In 2001, I was sitting in a theater watching “The Fellowship of the Ring.” It was one of the lowest points of my life. Clinical depression, coupled with the stresses of life, had me wondering, for neither the first nor the last time, how I could go on living this way.
Then, in the Mines of Moria, a weary Frodo tells Gandalf “I wish it need not have happened in my time.” Gandalf looks at him tenderly and replies “So do I . . . and so do all who live to see such times. But that is not for them to decide. All we have to decide is what to do with the time that is given us.”
I cried for the better part of an hour and then found the strength to go on. No “abstract ethical injunction” or exhortations to trust in God would have helped. But “a story from long ago about Wizards and hobbits” gave me what I needed.
It isn’t only Tolkien. “The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell: A Novel” by Robert Dugoni tells the story of Sam Hill, whom readers first meet when he is six years old and about to enter Our Lady of Mercy Grammar School in Burlingame, California.
At least that’s what his devout, to put it mildly, mother is determined will happen; what other people will permit to happen is another matter. That’s because Sam has a condition known as “ocular albinism,” which causes Sam’s eyes to appear red, hence the cruel nickname “Sam Hell.” Literally since birth, Sam’s eyes have made him the target of, at best, medical curiosity, and, at worst, opprobrium and cruelty.
In the latter category is the principal of the school, a dour nun who seems to come straight out of pre-Vatican II, Jansenist-soaked central casting. The key word here is “seems” because there’s a lot more going here: Dugoni is setting up one of the most, well, extraordinary depictions of grace and mercy I’ve ever come across.
But I’m getting ahead of myself. “The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell” is, to use the fancy German literary term, a bildungsroman, a “coming of age” story. Told in episodes that shift between the past and the present, it’s the story of a boy’s and then the man he becomes’, journey.
“Journey towards what?’ is the obvious question. The answer is faith. As Dugoni writes in the afterward, “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.”
None of this would matter, much less inspire, if Dugoni couldn’t create characters that we care about and with whom we can identify. It wouldn’t matter if Sam’s journey wasn’t comprised, like nearly all of ours, of 219 steps forward and 197 backwards. It wouldn’t matter if Sam didn’t make bone-headed mistakes, and, during the same period, have moments of such grace and selflessness that you are still willing to belief that what his sainted mother told him about the extraordinary life God had in store for him just might be true.
Most of all, it wouldn’t matter if that extraordinary life wasn’t one that the reader could imagine himself living: grace expressing itself in forgiveness and kindness even when the world hasn’t always been kind and forgiving towards you.
The closest well-known character to Sam Hill I can think of is George Bailey of “It’s a Wonderful Life.” Both men are given the gift, by way of answer to other people’s prayers, to see, as Julian of Norwich once said, “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.”
Is “The Extraordinary Life of Sam Hell” for everyone? Not really. For starters, there’s the occasional bit of profanity — most of which is quickly followed by a stern rebuke by Sam’s mom — and Sam, while far-from-promiscuous, does occasionally have sex, which is referred to mostly in passing. (Interestingly, as best as I can tell, Sam has sex with three women, including his wife, during his journey. He regrets the first two.)
Then there’s the Catholic ethos of Dugoni’s novel. If you’re put off by the phrase “the Blessed Mother,” this may not be the novel for you. If a literary trip to Lourdes is a bridge too far, you probably might want to cross elsewhere.
That’s a pity. Because, like “The Lord of the Rings,” Sam’s story left me believing, at least for a while, that “All shall be well, and all manner of thing shall be well.” And, Lord knows, I need that.