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Friday, May 28, 2010

The Wager, written by Donna Jo Napoli. Henry Holt, H B Fenn. 2010. $19.99 ages 13 and up

"Don Giovanni blew out the lamp and took off all his clothes. He stood in the dim light and felt his arms and legs and chest and belly. He was almost back to his summer self in size. Yet right now he had the sensation of being reduced to something insignificant, vulnerable. Like a small animal who had wandered by mistake into a large cave."

What a great read for a rainy day! Don Giovanni is a young man leading the good life. His parents have died leaving him their fortune. He has a tutor and mentor who tires of his philandering, and his extravagance. Don Alfinu is mean, and even miserly. Don Giovanni's lifestyle is abhorrent to him when he no longer has control over Giovanni's life, or money. A catastrophe of nature changes all things for the people of Sicily, and Don Giovanni is left with nothing. What will he do?

After many days of tirelessly looking for work to sustain himself, the devil approaches with an offer of untold wealth. Don Giovanni makes the deal. He will have all the money he needs but he cannot wash, cut his hair or change his clothes for three years, three months, three days. It is a bargain not to be taken lightly; failure means the loss of his soul. The story that follows is fraught with difficulty, disease, dirt and determination.

His intelligence and tenacity auger well for his success; but, the losses are great. His body is riddled with infections, itching, boils, sores, parasites, and more. The filth that accumulates during the many days that he must avoid washing, and other hygienic care is palpable. It makes Don Giovanni's journey real and appalling to the reader. There are other problems he must face. Where does he sleep? Where does he find food and sustenance when all who meet him are repulsed by his appearance and smell. Can he maintain a sense of humanity?

It is his character, his generosity and his ability to appreciate the goodness that he finds in this new world of his own making that allows the reader to take the journey at Don Giovanni's side, despite misgivings and a sense of abject distaste for his physical being. He has a heart that grows immeasurably, while honoring the deal he has made with the devil. In the end he is a person to be admired and loved...and as in all good fairy tales, there is a happy ending. Bravo!

Of her latest retelling Donna Jo Napoli says:

"...usually all I want is for a reader to have a good ride. I tell stories, after all – just stories. But this story matters to me in other ways. I find myself lately looking at the huge disparity of wealth in our country (and lots of others) and wondering where it can lead. If you take a good look at the underbelly of poverty and if you’re honest, you have to realize that if you are not poor yourself it is largely due to luck. We can work hard; we can have good skills; and still, with lousy luck, we can wind up in the gutter. And once you’re there, it is very hard to get out. Don Giovanni was thrust there — and it gave him a perspective he probably never would have had otherwise. And that perspective made him decent. So you can guess what my hope is — quite lofty, indeed — I want to help my reader gain a perspective that leads to decent behavior."

It is a lofty hope indeed!

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