The Children’s Train (Harper Collins, 2021)
By Viola Ardone
This book may not be what you think it is. Yes, it’s an historical fiction account of an effort to help impoverished children in southern Italy by transporting them by train to better off families in northern Italy in the aftermath of World War II. But that’s just the tip of the iceberg – or the shoe – in this hauntingly beautiful novel spanning some fifty years.
Sent away to the north of Italy by train to escape the destitution of the south, seven year-old Amerigo Speranza misses home and his brusque, taciturn mother, Antonietta. She emanates all the maternal warmth of the Polar Ice Caps. Antonietta doesn’t have much in the way of “strong points,” Amerigo dryly observes.
At first, he doesn’t fit in up north. But the kindness, generosity, and warmth of the northerners win him over. Amerigo is a changed boy after six months. He’s not the insecure, rudderless boy he was when his impassive mother put him on the train. Realizing that he’s better dressed, fed, educated, and cared for in the north than he ever was in the south, Amerigo balks at going back. Upon Amerigo’s return to the south later, however, he finds he doesn’t fit in there either.
So, where does he fit in? His mother is in the south. But his family is in the north. So just where, exactly, is “home”? That’s the crux of the entire book, along with what and who is “family,” and why?
Along the way we wonder, along with Amerigo, what the difference is between “exiled” and “sent away.” Or is there one? Do northern tortellini taste of hospitality or charity? We see how the women of southern Italy did their part in driving out the Germans and how they band together to fight the twin enemies of poverty and hunger later. “Whatever we can do, we must do.” Sol-i-dar-i-ty. Dig-ni-ty. In-ter-na-zio-nale. Where does “solidarity” go if we all go in different places? Grays skies. Long, thin clouds. Fascists vs. Communists vs. hunger, poverty, and disease. “Weeds grow so fast.”
Shoes. (You’ll get that when you read the book.)
Fast forward to 1994. A grown man, Amerigo returns to his childhood village, violin case in hand. The narrative shifts here. The point of view is that of an adult as Amerigo talks to his recently deceased mother. But Amerigo is so reluctant to identify with his mother that when questioned, he insists he’s Antonietta’s nephew, not her son. Because (spoiler) he’s “the son who ran away. The one who never came to see you.” This seems to never stop gnawing at Amerigo’s conscience. Because this time, she’s the one who “ran away.” And she’s not coming back.
Bittersweet recollections follow and bubble to the surface, filtered through a fifty year window. Amerigo slowly realizes that from the moment his mother put him on the train in 1946, the two of them traveled two different tracks which never crossed again. And their two lives were a “mix up” of miscommunications and “a love made up of misunderstandings.”
Struggling to understand what happened in the past and why, Amerigo boards another train. As an adult this time, he retraces his steps “all the way back to you, Mamma.” In the process, Amerigo slowly realizes that all feet are different. Every one with its own shape and size. If you don’t understand the differences, if you don’t indulge them, then “all of life is suffering.”
Strengths & POV
Part of the strength of the novel is its Point of View. The bulk of this story is told from the viewpoint of a seven year old child. It sounds like a seven year old, without sounding juvenile. Instead of putting adult views or verbiage into a young child’s mouth, the author adeptly conveys the thoughts, emotions, and perspective of a young child in a young child’s voice. It’s no mean feat. But Ardone pulls it off, creating a credible, three-dimensional character and an absorbing story of love, loss, and self-discovery.
A beautiful, poignant read full of pathos and subtle power, The Children’s Train is recommended for anyone who enjoys thoughtful, articulate historical fiction or has ever wondered where “home” is.
Originally published in Italy as Il Treno dei Bambini, 2019.
P.S.: You may not want to read this book when you’re hungry. Cuz it’s chockful of onion sizzling in olive oil. Pasta with potatoes and provola cheese. Pasta alla Genovese… Can you hear my stomach growling?
Our Rating: 4.5
Children’s shoes image: Public Domain