Eight-year-old Amerigo an only surviving child, lives with his mother Antonietta in a postwar Naples in ruins. The Four Days of Naples which was a revolt of citizens and partisans against the Nazi occupation is a recent event.
Every day is a fight for survival. Amerigo spends his days scavenging for rags to sell. His shoes are always at least a size too small, and his feet always hurt.
Antonietta is gruff in her treatment of her son. Affectionate gestures are rare. Struggling to provide for him, she has little time to spare for tender interactions. She has a lover (or is he?) who, is possibly involved in the Black Market, and puts food on the table
The story which is In the form of a memoir, begins with Antonietta taking Amerigo to enroll him in school. He had quit school sometime before, and his mother had reluctantly accepted his decision and set him to scavenging for rags which she washed and sold.
There is an ulterior motive to taking him to school this time. It is not to enroll him for school, but to sign him up to travel to Northern Italy to visit with families that will welcome these children, providing them with exposure to a life so different from the one they know. The organizer, Maddalena Criscuolo, a veteran and heroine of the Four Days of Naples, and a member of the Communist Party which sponsors the trains, will shepherd the children to the families in the North who have applied to accept them. She is a calming and affectionate presence on the journey.
When Antonietta provides Amerigo with any kind of treat, he wonders what price he will pay for the indulgence (what is the ‘catch’?) The catch in this case, is that he will board the train and go North.
At one point as the train travels, the children many of whom have never seen it, spy through the windows a landscape covered in snow which some mistake for ricotta cheese.
When the children arrive at their destination, they are seated for the families who chose them to claim. Even though Amerigo is the one child not picked up because the family meant for him had a medical emergency , Derna, another Party worker, after consultation with Maddalena, takes him home on the bus. Horrified that the boy has been sent without a coat in winter, (some of the mothers, sure that the new families will provide new coats for their children, have kept their old coats for other children who remain.), she opens her coat and embraces him within it. So begins the new adventure that will change his life. He becomes a member of a blended family. Derna is single, but he also becomes a part of the family of her sister and brother-in-law, and their children, apparently the family that had originally requested them.
After a return to his village which is always an option for the train children, Amerigo chooses to return to the family up North where he has a foster family who loves him and can provide the education and material necessities that he would not have in his birthplace. In adulthood, he becomes a professional musician.
It isn’t until years later when he returns to the village as an adult, summoned by the news that his mother Antonietta, has died, that Amerigo recognizes that it is difficult emotionally to go home again when so much of what Amerigo knew as a child is gone forever.
Yet, some things remain, older, but still there. Some revelations and unknown relatives will be revealed. New ties will be made.
I re-read the last chapters of The Children’s Train today, and finished them with tears.
Amerigo’s mother Antonietta is a forever regret as he realizes upon his return the truth of something that Maddalena had told him on the train when Amerigo asks “Does someone who loves you send you away….? Her response: “Amerigo, sometimes letting you go shows greater love than keeping you."
In a way, the ending of this story reminds me of the ending of the the film “Cinema Paradiso.”
Amerigo, too will mentor a child.
We had children's trains in the USA, called Orphan Trains in which social services groups sponsored trains carrying abandoned and orphaned children across the country in the hopes of finding them families. The children were put on display and families allowed to choose. These transactions did not always end happily.
Viola Ardone writes movingly taking us inside the mind of a child who at first misses the mother he had seen as distant,and irritable but familiar and loved and later learns to love as well a single woman, a stranger, who understands and comforts him.
I was given an advance copy of the novel by the publisher for an honest review.