cover image The Road to Damietta

The Road to Damietta

Scott O'Dell. Houghton Mifflin Harcourt (HMH), $14.95 (230pp) ISBN 978-0-395-38923-2

O'Dell, one of the few American winners of the Hans Christian Andersen Medal, among other honors, has written what may be his finest novel. He notes that his book ""leans heavily upon'' Francis of Assisi by Arnaldo Fortini, translated by Helen Moak, who also added valuable findings of her own. The Fortini biography is deemed the best of countless histories of the saint, but O'Dell's novel is unsurpassed at recreating the human beings in the orbit of St. Francis and the places where the great events of his life occured. The narrator is Cecilia Graziella Beatrice Angelica Rosanna di Montaro (based on Angelica di Rimini, a contemporary of Francis). Called ``Ricca,'' the girl is 13, secretly burning with love for Francis Bernardone. The foppish, pleasure-bent youth is scorned by other men in Assisi, but adored by most women, including Ricca's slightly older friend, Clare di Scifi, whose family demands that she wed ``advantageously,'' which is the aim of the di Montaros for Ricca. Transfixed by Francis, the girls witness his public disavowal of his rich father when the scapegrace strips off his clothes and declares himself a mendicant for Christ. This is the beginning of the wanderings that take Francis and his band to Damietta where men of the Fifth Crusade slaughter the Saracens, in the name of Christianity. Ricca follows Francis and, through her words, we experience the horrors and the loss of hope when the saint's rapport with Sultan Malik-al-Kamil fails to bring peace. Bishop Pelagius, leading the crusade, drives his soldiers to further brutalities while the sultan shows the mercy expected from followers of the Nazarene. Back in Italy, Ricca is with Clarenow founder of the Poor Clares who imitate Francis's brotherly bandwhen the saint dies. It will be a long time before readers cease to feel the impact of O'Dell's drama and the influence of the saint who urged us to love each other and ``all things great and small.'' (12-up)