Author: Dr James Best
Publisher: Allen & Unwin
Copy: Courtesy of the Publisher
Sam’s Best Shot is a memoir, which is not a genre I usually pick up, that tells the story of a father and son who set off on an epic journey across Africa. Why did I choose to read, review and feature this one as part of the book club if it’s not something I would read you may ask. Autism touches the lives of many of us, me included, and I was intrigued by the premise.
As parents we want to do all that we can for our children, we want to give them the best that’s in our power and we want to make sure they are well prepared for their growth into adulthood. You often hear stories of families selling everything and fundraising for life-saving medications or surgeries they can only get somewhere else in the world and when you really break it down, this isn’t really that different.
Sam Best is a fourteen year old boy on the autism spectrum and he faces some major challenges in everyday life. Autism is a spectrum disorder which means that every person with autism is different, and will respond to different therapies and stimuli. This means there isn’t a one size fits all treatment plan, or a set of behaviours you can judge every person on. The range on the spectrum goes from extremely high functioning to severely disabled and everywhere in between, many of the people on the spectrum fall somewhere in between. Sam falls somewhere in between.
Sam’s Best Shot is an intimate look at an extreme intervention devised by Sam’s parents to take him outside his comfort zone and teach him strategies for coping with unpredictability, as well as learning social and conversational skills he has been struggling with. This journey has been documented in more ways than just this book; there is a documentary filmed by Heiress Films, Dr Best completed a travel blog while they were away and recently a story aired on one of the current affair shows.
Over the course of the book, which documents their entire trip from leaving Sydney to their return six months later, we watch the changes in Sam. A lot of this is a little subjective as we see through the eyes of his father, but there are also some writing exercises performed by Sam where we can judge for ourselves the difference in his writing.
I think the issue I have with memoirs is that they have a very different pace to a novel. It isn’t about world building and scene setting, it’s about getting to know a person and experiencing their life through their words. I am trying to work out how best to articulate what I’m thinking and finding it quite a struggle. I think that, for me, memoirs tend to get a bit bogged down in detail and I find it slows me down. It’s not that these aren’t relevant details but they tend to keep me from losing myself in the book.
Sam likes the familiar so when he is transported to Africa it really is a completely different world. We watch as he is thrown into a new country, away from all he is familiar with, and is set tasks and goals to help him reach a greater degree of independence. We get to spectate through the course of the book as Sam interviews the people he meets, engages in conversation with new people, experiences a wealth of new sights, sounds and tastes. We get to watch the fluency change in his conversation, the level of self-regulation he is capable of and the expansion of his comfort zone.
Sam’s Best Shot is about so much more than all of that, and there are a lot of elements that surprised even Dr Best. The lessons that he learned about himself and the growth he faced apart from all he was trying to achieve with Sam were totally beyond the scope of what he thought would happen.
Travel is a major focus of the book, as you would expect, and we head off on a once in a lifetime journey with this father and son duo. They book one way tickets and accommodation for the first couple of nights, after that they make it up as they go. I can not even begin to imagine this situation.
Dr Best shares a lot about the places, the people and the culture so there is a wealth of information to take in. We are shown the glaring contrasts between the African countries and life in Australia but we also glimpse disability from the perspective of Dr Best as he compares Sam with the many people they come across on their travels. They meet Africans with autism of different ages and recognise the differences in their lives; Sam has access to a plethora of treatments and therapies which still leave him with limited independence yet in Africa the access to treatment is very much reduced and people with autism are living alone, working and supporting themselves.
I enjoyed my backseat journey with the Bests; watching them grow, watching them learn and experiencing things that I will never come close to. I did find that at times it was a little draggy but I think that’s more the style of book than anything else.
I think this is a great read for an inside look at autism and Africa just don’t go in expecting a miracle cure, it just doesn’t work that way. I enjoyed the book and would definitely recommend it.