The Wager by Donna Jo Napoli.
Henry Holt and Company: NY, 2010.

Don Giovanni is the wealthiest host in 1169 Messina, Sicily. A tidal wave resulting from a Mount Etna eruption wipes out much of Messina, including Don Giovanni's property. Not used to fending for himself, he first tries to help others. Everyone else seems to know before he does of his destitution. Homeless and hungry, he decides to head to another region and a new life.

The devil appears to him in the form of a gentleman, offering to provide unlimited wealth in exchange for his pride in his appearance. The deal is that he cannot bathe or change clothes for three years. If he breaks the agreement, the devil will own his soul. Out of desperation, Don Giovanni accepts the terms. With a regular source of money, he should be able to last 3 years, shouldn't he? Unfortunately, there are many consequences of uncleanliness that Don Giovanni did not expect. He thought that he could just be a hermit in a hotel for 3 years, but before long he is asked to leave, at more than one hotel. He becomes a content migrant worker for a time, but the season change ends this existence. After many lessons in homelessness and ostracism, Giovanni finds a man who will sell him his villa, for an outrageous sum (What providence!). With the knowledge he has gained through his troubles, Giovanni uses his home and wealth to improve others' lives. He gives money for civic projects as well. His generosity gains the attention of the royal family in Sicily.

Not to be outwitted, the devil makes a few attempts to dissuade Giovanni from the bargain. Giovanni battles shame, illness, and pain as the devil pushes him to his limit. Thankfully, by this time Giovanni has a handful of loyal friends. Two in particular (plus his stray dog) see past his appearance and help him through his trials.

The most amazing thing about this story is the thorough examination of what it means to be homeless. Even after Giovanni has a home, he lives similar to the homeless, because the uncleanliness is such a factor in his life. It totally changes who he is, for the better.

The historic portion of the tale centers around the volcanic eruption, earthquake, and tidal wave. Napoli also notes that the time period saw a transition in politics and culture from the nobility on down. Later reforms trace their roots to this time. She based the story on a Sicilian fairytale. Her use of historic detail enriches her writing; this is why her books are so often must-read selections.

related-conduct of life, wagers, aristocracy, social class, pride and vanity, devil, Don Juan, Sicily, Italy, 12th century, volcanic eruptions

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