Monday, November 21, 2011

ESCAPE TO THE PAST WITH: The Wager by Donna Jo Napoli

I’ve just finished The Wager by Donna Jo Napoli. Napoli is a rather prolific award-winning writer of children’s and young adult books. I should have read her work before now!

The Wager is a retelling of an old Sicilian fairy tale. Set in Sicily, beginning in 1169, it tells the story of Don Giovanni, a handsome wealthy young gentleman who is, unfortunately, an arrogant wastrel. One night, an earthquake strikes, followed by a tidal wave that washes away everything he owns. His servants abandon him. His castle is essentially repossessed by his creditors. Robbers and worse chase him from his home. He’s too proud to be seen begging where he once was lord, so he makes his way to another city where he can do a peasant’s work to survive.

Don Giovanni manages to scrape by while the weather is warm, but come winter time, he slowly starves. This is when the Devil makes his move. He offers a wager. If Don Giovanni will not bathe, change his clothes, or cut his hair for three years, three months, and three days, the Devil will provide him with a purse that will yield unlimited riches.

Don Giovanni is not a fool. He knows enough to fear a deal with the Devil. But he’s starving and sees no other way out. He thinks he can manage being dirty if he is rich. He takes the purse.

The story then follows Don Giovanni through his years of degradation and redemption.

It’s a wonderful tour of twelfth century Sicily. The nitty gritty details of life for the peasantry come across as realistic even if the political/historical details of the time are bent to fit the fairy tale. It’s not meant to be true historical fiction after all. It’s a morality tale. And watching Don Giovanni’s inward transformation for the better while he is outwardly deteriorating does make you root for Don Giovanni to win. Still, I always wonder a little about this wager-with-the-devil genre. The fool who makes the wager always seems to wiggle out somehow at the end. Rather than a warning against betting your soul, the message seems to be go ahead! You’ll suffer, sure, but in the end, you can beat the devil at his own game.

Musings about the mixed message of the genre aside, The Wager is a thought-provoking story about the importance of community and what money can and cannot buy.

This is my final book for the YA historical fiction challenge. It’s a little more in the fantasy/fairy tale realm than the historical fiction I usually read, but it was a nice change of pace. I’ve now completed three of my four challenges and have just one more book to go for the fourth challenge. Phew! I might make it, but that last book, for the Classics Challenge, is a bear!


  1. I hadn't even heard about this author. It sounds like a good read, I had heard of the fairy tale before.

  2. I have never heard of this book before. It sounds wonderful. I always enjoy books set in Sicily, thanks for the wonderful review!

  3. I've really enjoyed some of her books, but have not read this one yet. Definitely going to be adding that to my TBR. Thanks for the review! Also, had not heard of this challenge before, but I think I'll try to participate next year, if it's still happening.