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Review: Sooley by John Grisham

Title: Sooley

Author: John Grisham

Year Published: 2021

Category: Adult fiction (sports)
Pages: 368
Rating: 4.5 out of 5

Location (my 2021 Google Reading map): South Sudan, Uganda, USA (FL, Washington, DC, AZ, TN, and NC)

Summary (from Amazon): In the summer of his seventeenth year, Sam­uel Sooleymon gets the chance of a lifetime: a trip to the United States with his South Sudanese teammates to play in a showcase basket­ball tournament. He has never been away from home, nor has he ever been on an airplane. The opportunity to be scouted by dozens of college coaches is a dream come true.

Samuel is an amazing athlete, with speed, quick­ness, and an astonishing vertical leap. The rest of his game, though, needs work, and the American coaches are less than impressed.

During the tournament, Samuel receives dev­astating news from home: A civil war is raging across South Sudan, and rebel troops have ran­sacked his village. His father is dead, his sister is missing, and his mother and two younger brothers are in a refugee camp.

Samuel desperately wants to go home, but it’s just not possible. Partly out of sympathy, the coach of North Carolina Central offers him a scholar­ship. Samuel moves to Durham, enrolls in classes, joins the team, and prepares to sit out his freshman season. There is plenty of more mature talent and he isn’t immediately needed.

But Samuel has something no other player has: a fierce determination to succeed so he can bring his family to America. He works tirelessly on his game, shooting baskets every morning at dawn by himself in the gym, and soon he’s dominating everyone in practice. With the Central team los­ing and suffering injury after injury, Sooley, as he is nicknamed, is called off the bench. And the legend begins.

But how far can Sooley take his team? And will success allow him to save his family?

Gripping and moving, Sooley showcases John Grisham’s unparalleled storytelling powers in a whole new light. This is Grisham at the top of his game.

Review: I can usually guarantee that I will like a Grisham novel and figure I know what type of story I am going to read, however, this one surprised me. There is no lawyer, no mystery, and it's not set in the south. I really enjoyed it though it is an intense and emotional read.

Sooley takes place in both the US and South Sudan, taking the reader through all that that means from poverty to family love and pride to rebel attacks on villages (trigger warning, this includes the slaughter and rape of innocents) to women and children fleeing in search of refugee camps. On the other side of the world are South Sudanese young men trying to make it in the world of college basketball. The juxtaposition of these two realities is well done.

I was invested in Sooley and his family from page one. I do well with sports in novels when it is used as a vehicle for the story (rather than being the story) and that is true in this novel. Sooley is polite, sweet, determined, proud, and suffering. He's an underdog that any reader will support and root for.

My only complaint about this novel is the ending. For me (but not for many readers, I am sure) there was a bit too much basketball play-by-play at the end and the ending seemed a bit too much. I don't want to say more or give anything away.

However, this is also a book that shows the best in humanity: the coaches who support their players, families who take in strangers, and nonprofit workers who help those in need both at home and abroad. Though there is much good in this novel, it does not paint a rosy picture of light and happiness. Grisham has done his research about the situation in South Sudan and it makes for a grim picture of the civil war and its impact on the South Sudanese people.

Challenges for which this counts: 
  • Diversity
  • Literary Escapes--South Sudan

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