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January 12, 1986|KRISTIANA GREGORY

THE ROAD TO DAMIETTA by Scott O'Dell (Houghton Mifflin: $14.95; 230 pp., age 12 and up). Twenty-five years ago Scott O'Dell entranced young readers with "Island of the Blue Dolphins," the Newbery Award-winning saga of an Indian girl stranded for 18 years on San Nicholas Island. It was made into a movie and has since become a classic in the genre of historical fiction, so vivid that a new generation is enjoying thumb-worn copies. Equally moving is his "Sing Down the Moon," which, 10 years later as a Newbery Honor Book, portrayed the Navajos who were forced to migrate from their homeland during the mid-1860s. Both stories are first-person accounts, told by the protagonist, a young girl. Now O'Dell continues that tradition in "The Road to Damietta" as Ricca narrates within the setting of 13th-Century Italy. Through her eyes, we meet Francis Bernardone, a playboy of sorts with whom she is passionately in love, and who eventually pledges a spiritual life that transforms him into the famed Saint Francis of Assisi.

This is heftier than O'Dell's other books, and the type is as small as that of a news magazine, which could be intimidating to some 12-year-olds. But, once past the first sentence ("We heard the leper's bell long before we saw the leper"), the reader will be rewarded with adventure so colorful that you don't need TV to picture medieval life at its best and worst. The author typically paints rather than splashes details, some gruesome, but ever-effective.

And, of course, there is Francis as he journeys with crusaders from Assisi to Venice to Damietta in Egypt, where he tries to make peace with the sultan. Ricca shadows him, never winning him as a lover, but learning his wish for harmony and the oneness of nature. His words echo today, repeated on dime-store plaques and by world leaders: "Lord, make me an instrument of Thy peace; Where there is hatred, let me sow love. . . ."

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