The Children’s Train – Viola Ardone – Audible Book Review
by Pat Viale
Translated by Clarissa Botsford
The news in Ireland has been dominated in recent weeks by the disquieting facts revealed in the report of the Commission of Investigation into the Mothers and Babies Homes. We have been shocked by the fact that children were taken away from their mothers and placed in more “suitable” situations by representatives of Church and State.
Set in Italy at the end of the Second World War, Viola Ardone’s novel, based on true events, tells a similar story when thousands of children from deprived backgrounds were moved away from their families in the south of the country to be fostered or adopted by families in the more prosperous north. A brainchild of the Italian Communist Party this redistribution of children, though motivated by altruism, caused great heartbreak for many families and left many of the children with a feeling of dislocation that remained with them for the rest of their lives.
We first meet Amerigo Speranza as a seven-year-old child living hand-to-mouth with his mother, Antonietta, in a Neapolitan slum. Of his father little is known and Amerigo survives looking for scraps on rubbish tips and trying to sell on his finds at the market. When his mother is approached by a representative from the Communist Party which is organising temporary accommodation for poor children with more affluent families in the north of Italy, she reluctantly agrees to allow Amerigo to go. There he will be fed and clothed and will also have the chance to receive the type of education that she is unable to afford.
At once excited and terrified by the prospect of this new adventure, Amerigo sets off with a trainload of children who frighten each other on the journey with rumours that their ears will be cut off on arrival or that they are actually being sent off to Siberia. On reaching Bologna, he waits miserably in the reception hall for his adoptive family to appear. Learning that they are now unable to accommodate him he is eventually taken into the care of a single woman, Derna, with whom he will now live and who will become his new “mamma”.
The novel follows Amerigo’s struggle to fit into this new way of life where not only the customs but even the language is different from what he has been used to. His affections are torn between Antonietta who sacrificed so much throughout the war to keep him safe and Derna who is kind and understanding and offers him a chance at a better life. This struggle will last his whole life and we later meet an older Amerigo, successful and prosperous, but guilt-ridden and conflicted because of the choices he has made. When a chance for redemption comes he must confront again the questions he has for so long tried to avoid.
Told mainly through the eyes of a child, The Children’s Train is a moving but unsentimental account of how the best-motivated plans can have unforeseen and destructive consequences. The narrator, American actor and singer, Tim Campbell, adopts a sombre tone that suits much of the story. His pronunciation of the short Italian passages is, for the most part, excellent and he does justice to Ardone’s rich, multilayered prose. However, his delivery at times sounds too formal and fails to portray the wonder and mischievousness of the young Amerigo and his friends.
This is an unusual and interesting book that sheds light on a passage of Italian history that has been rarely documented.
The audiobook is available from audible.co.uk and lasts 5hrs and 53 mins