Ferrol Sams

1922-

Ferrol Sams was born September 26, 1922, in Fayetteville, GA; son of Ferrol (a school superintendent) and Mildred (Matthews) Sams; he married Helen Fletcher (a physician), July 18, 1948. Ferrol Sams was educated at Mercer University; Emory University, M.D., 1949. Sams worked as a physician in private practice in Fayetteville, GA, and as an instructor in creative writing at Emory University.  Sams also served in the U.S. military from 1943 to 1947.

Ferrol Sams, who regards himself as "a country doctor" according to Publishers Weekly, gained widespread recognition with the publication of his first book, Run with the Horsemen. Sams began writing after attending Emory University as a medical student. Rising each morning at five a.m. to study for his medical board examinations, he maintained his early morning routine after becoming certified, and filled the early hours by recording his memories of life in rural Fayette County, Georgia, where his family roots can be traced back 150 years. Eventually as Sams told Steve Walburn of Atlanta Magazine, "I could again feel and hear and smell the earth. And I thought the scene would make others feel, hear, and smell it. . . . Then I found out I could embroider the truth here, invent some character there, and before long I was into it."

Sams's notes, handwritten in a spiral notebook, became the manuscript for his first novel, Run with the Horsemen, a national bestseller, and the first of three books about Porter Osborne, a prank-playing farmboy and aspiring doctor, who, like his creator, grew up between World Wars in rural Georgia. Sams told Bob Summer of Publishers Weekly that his novels are "autobiographical, although people who read them as straight autobiography and believe everything in them actually happened are mistaken."

Run with the Horsemen was warmly received by many critics, among them Alice Digilio, who in a Washington Post review asserted that Sams "has fashioned a first novel remarkable both for its humor and its sustained and detailed picture of a mischievous southern farmboy's life during the Great Depression." And New York Times Book Review commentator Robert Miner deemed Sams's writing "elegant, reflective and amused. Mr. Sams is a storyteller sure of his audience, in no particular hurry, and gifted with perfect timing."

The second of the Porter Osborne books, The Whisper of the River, takes Porter to a Baptist college in Middle Georgia during the late 1930's. Despite the religious structure of the school, Porter indulges in pranks and re-examines his own beliefs. "It's a rolicking tale, a regional story of growing up," wrote a Washington Post Book World critic. In another review for the same periodical, George Core opined: "The Whisper of the River is not merely a collection of humorous anecdotes and tall tales by a masterly yarnspinner, for it has wider scope and a deeper significance that embraces college life in most of its manifestations--generational conflict, race relations, the coming of war, and other themes of enduring value."

Between his second and final books of the Porter trilogy, Sams encountered writer's block and was unable to continue writing Porter's story. Sams's editor suggested he turn his attention to a book of short stories; thus, The Widow's Mite and Other Stories was born. The title story, based on the Biblical parable about the woman who gave what little she could despite her great need, is a story about giving and tells the plight of a tithing woman who receives $125,000 in inheritance money when her husband is decapitated. Other stories in the collection also provide moral lessons as Sams writes of subjects ranging from the evils of sex and alcohol, to the misconduct of the clergy. Shelby Hearon, writing in the New York Times Book Review, judged The Widow's Mite "a fine assemblage of tales about the charities and malices of gospelheeding, neighbor-loving Southerners, which read as if they'd been recounted firsthand on the deepest porch in town."

Sams also issued two volumes of nonfiction during his hiatus from the Porter Osborne saga: The Passing: Perspectives of Rural America,which includes paintings by Jim Harrison, and Christmas Gift!, a volume of Sams's memories of old-fashioned, southern Christmases. In the latter book, Sams writes of his family's historic homestead, of Christmas cakes and ambrosia, and of the time-worn ornaments that are ceremoniously hung on the tree year after year. Considered by a Publishers Weekly critic to be a "charming account of the celebration of Christmas," Christmas Gift! inspired Linton Weeks of the Atlanta Constitution to write: "The doctor-writer possesses considerable wit and skill. And, though he sometimes uses too much treacle and lard, no one writing today is better at serving up helping after helping of home-cooked, Old South-style prose."

After his Christmas Gift! break, Sams continued Porter's story in When All the World Was Young, in which the main character enters medical school. Although Porter is still a practical joker and obsessed with sex and dating, his serious side emerges when, riddled with guilt at his lack of involvement in the war effort, he purposely flunks out so he can join the army and become a surgeon's assistant. "This spirited coming-of-age novel," judged Genevieve Stuttaford in Publishers Weekly, "is also ruefully funny, tinged with the wisdom of hindsight." Atlanta Constitution contributor and World War II veteran Benjamin Griffith also enjoyed the third installation of Porter's life, although he warned that "some will tire of the fumbling obscenities, the anal-stage allusions and the gratuitous profanities that endlessly lace the conversations of citizen-soldiers trying to appear seasoned. Alas, the author's ear is accurate; it is much as I remember it from my World War II days. The sides of most readers will also tire from constant laughter."

Despite his success as a writer, Sams is first a physician, maintaining a busy clinic in Fayetteville with his wife and two of his sons. "I'm really fortunate as a writer," Sams told Walburn in Atlanta Magazine. "I don't have to write for money or critics. The only thing I have to write for are people who like to read, and I've been very blessed that a lot of people like to read what I write."

Sams told CA: "Writing is hard work and a difficult discipline but, next to medicine, is the most fulfilling thing a person can do."

Bibliography:

Epiphany (short stories), Longstreet Press (Marietta, GA), 1994.