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The Children's Train

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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.” 


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 that 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. He retraces his steps “all the way back to you, Mamma.” In the process, Amerigo slowly realizes that all feet are different. Everyone 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.”

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 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.

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Read if you: Are a fan of World War II historical fiction, but are interested in something that takes place in the aftermath. 

Librarians/booksellers: This covers a unique aspect of post-WW II life in Italy, in which some children in the southern part of the country were sent to live with the more prosperous families in the north. Ardone vividly brings to life the shock the children felt when arriving, the bonds they formed, and the difficulties they faced when they returned, as well as the lifelong consequences. 

Many thanks to HarperVia and NetGalley for a digital review copy in exchange for an honest review.
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Based on true events during and after WWII, the story is told through a young boy, Amerigo, who lives in abject poverty with his mother in southern Italy. His mother, along with hundreds of other Italian parents, send their children to northern Italy to live a better life with adoptive families. The young narrator is engaging to follow as he interacts with various people and shares some of his quirky, but naive thoughts, like his fascination with shoes! It's a dual timeline story at the latter part focuses on when he looks back on his childhood fifty years later.  Thanks to #netgalley for the advanced copy for review.
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I received this book "The Children's Train" from NetGalley and all opinions expressed are my own.  I had a bit of a hard time with this book in the beginning, it was a slow for me to get into. I did enjoy reading about Amerigo's journey from young boy to adult. He went through some tough times trying to figure things out. He had a lot of regrets and I definitely felt them with him, the pain he was feeling. There is no going back on the choices one makes in their life. It's hard for anyone not to think of the "what if's". Overall an interesting book that was based on true events.
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Based on true events, set in post-World War II Italy, about poor children from the south sent to live with families in the north to survive deprivation.

The war has devastated Italy, especially south. Seven-year-old Amerigo Sperenza lives with his mother in Naples, surviving on odd jobs. But one day, Amerigo learns that a train will take him north to a better place.

In the north, he adapts well to his new surroundings and adopted family. At school, he proves to be good with numbers. With his adopted father he fixes instruments. But his ambitions are much higher. He wants to play those instruments, and not just tune them.

At 75%, the story shifts fifty years later. And some chapters bring the voice of Amerigo as he is talking to his late mother. It reveals how things followed in his early age and he also reconnects with some lost friendships.

The voice of a grown-up Amerigo is interesting and reads well. However, I enjoyed the wit and the voice of him as a boy so much that I wished it just followed the young voice to almost the end or for a longer time. I wasn’t ready to part with the voice of the boy when it happened.

I enjoyed a lot the innocent voice of Amerigo, who for example, thinks he can get to America by train until another child explains that he needs to take a ship. But at the time, he doesn’t have anyone to confirm that America is on the other side of the sea.

At some points, he made me laugh out loud. “I look the bull in the face and can see he has a nasty temper, a bit like Mamma Antonietta, who is sweet and nice, but when you get in her way, she literally sees red.”

Amerigo is such a loveable character. I usually prefer voice of an adult, but he turns out to be probably the most memorable character I have ever encountered.

It is a moving story of self-exploration, the choices we face and make, especially when it comes to family. Those are the hardest decisions. What does family truly mean?

Written with heartfelt prose, with well-drawn characters facing hardships and struggles, thus well-depicting the time period, and keeping the plot moving forward at all times.
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I received a free e-copy of The Children's Train in exchange for an unbiased review

There were parts of this book I loved and parts that just seemed redundant. The events are seen through the eyes of Amerigo, a seven-year-old boy who lives in southern postwar Italy. He is fascinated by shoes and marks happiness and success by the condition of someone's shoes. Hunger and poverty are rampant and Amerigo's single mother, Antonietta, makes the heartbreaking decision to send him north with other children on a train sponsored by the Communist Party. What is in the North is somewhat a mystery but Antonietta and other parents are desperate. Amerigo and the other children find loving homes, food, and an education for the six months or so they are there. Their attitudes and expectations are irrevocably altered by their experiences.

Antonietta is a most interesting character. Gruff and easily critical, she doesn't have the usual mothering characteristics; one must wonder if all her energy had gone into just surviving the war with a living child. Amerigo and his mother never really open up to each other, perhaps because of Amerigo's youth or Antonietta's fear of being soft when survival depends on a certain toughness. She never really connects with her own child.

Since most of this book is from the point of view of a young boy, there are glimpses of people and events that he really doesn't understand; readers must draw the connections and implications. This novel provides another perspective of the lasting ramifications of war that don't end with a signed surrender.

#NetGalley #TheChildren'sTrain
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