The displacement of children is a vexing problem in international and national politics. Italian author Viola Ardone’s novel explores issues surrounding children who are separated from their parents, but in this case, the families willingly send their youngsters away to live in the care of strangers.
The Children’s Train is the story of 7-year-old Amerigo Speranza, who lives with his mother in Naples after World War II, when the Germans occupied the city and the Allies bombed it to pieces. Food and new shoes became scarce, and Amerigo had to drop out of school. Then Italy’s Communist Party approached struggling Neapolitan families with an offer: Their children would be sent to Northern Italy to be cared for by wealthier families throughout the winter.
Amerigo joins the train of children, and he is placed with a single woman in the Communist Party. His new life includes school, violin lessons and plenty of food. His life is undoubtedly better in the north, but the children of the “Mezzogiorno” aren’t meant to leave their parents permanently. The novel’s most heartfelt conflict involves Amerigo’s feelings about returning home to his life of poverty. A new world has opened for him; not so for his mother and their neighbors.
The novel jumps forward in time to Amerigo’s adulthood, which is when the novel shines. (Ardone writes adult Amerigo more convincingly than the 7-year-old boy.) Amerigo was privileged to have the opportunity to leave Naples and its poverty behind, but it came at what cost to his mother, his community and, ultimately, himself? Did taking that opportunity actually better his life, or did it drive a wedge between him and everyone he loves?
Translated from the Italian by Clarissa Botsford, The Children’s Train explores difficult decisions made by people living extremely hard lives. There are no easy answers and no heroes or villains. Ardone’s novel will appeal to fans of Elena Ferrante, but it stands on its own as a fictionalized account of an exceptional—and exceptionally complicated—social experiment.