Review Blog

Dec 22 2009

Saving Sam by Susan Brocker

cover image

Auckland : Harper Collins, 2009.
Saving Sam is a story about a boy and a dog, and the healing powers of the human-canine interaction. Ben is a boy in a difficult family and personal situation. He is being bullied at his new school, his father is in gaol and his mother is dead. Ben and his elder brother Sam are staying with their Uncle Joe and Aunt Ida, whose children have grown up and left the family home. Joe has recently lost his job, is sitting around watching television all day and is severely depressed. He does not want the responsibility for his nephews and is quite angry at his feckless brother for landing the boys on him. Aunt Ida, the aunt-in-law, is much more welcoming of the boys, and in fact the portrayal of family life with the aunt and uncle is quite warm and affectionate.
Ben idolizes his bother Sam, who is drifting away from him and into bad company. The best thing Ben has going for him is his Uncle Joe's recently-acquired dog Layla, who was bought as a guard dog from a man at the pub. Layla turns out to be a failure as a guard dog, as she has been brutalized in her earlier life and is fearful and skittish of human interaction. Ben pleads to be able to take care of Layla who, not unlike Ben, has a significant process of recovery and rehabilitation to go through. It will come as no surprise that Ben and Layla undertake this journey together.
Ben takes Layla to dog training, which has many beneficial effects. It gives him an entree into significant friendships with a sympathetic female classmate and a Customs officer who is the dog trainer, it brings Uncle Joe onside as he and Ben practice Layla's training together, and turns the class bully into an ally. At the same time, however, the situation with Sam is going from bad to worse.
It turns out that Sam has become involved with drugs, in particular methamphetamines, and a sinister drug dealer. This latter turns out to be a Phys Ed teacher at the boys' new school, to my mind a highly-contrived and over-exaggerated character, and an unlikely plot development. The remainder of the novel deals with the satisfactory resolution of the various problems and situations of the 4 main protagonists - Ben, Sam, Uncle Joe and (last but not least) Layla.
The book's heart is definitely in the right place - strong anti-drug, anti-gangs message, equally strong message about hope and the power of love of animals and family - but unfortunately at times the plot feels forced and the writing somewhat didactic. An unnecessary sub-plot about Aunt Ida and Uncle Ben's estranged son seems tacked-on, doesn't really go anywhere, and is dealt with in a perfunctory manner at the end of the novel. There are long detailed sections on the mechanics of dog-training, of interest to those interested, so to speak, but possibly not of broader appeal.
Susan Brocker is a recognized New Zealand author with more than 50 books to her credit, mainly non-fiction. Having perused reviews of Saving Sam in New Zealand journals/newspapers, I should say that my opinion of the novel is not widely shared, and in fact those reviews have been pretty good.
Peter Helman

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