Italy's Forgotten Child Trains: When Amerigo Embarked on a New Life

Naples, 1946: Seven-year-old Amerigo collects rags and is always hungry.

Italy's Forgotten Child Trains: When Amerigo Embarked on a New Life

Naples, 1946: Seven-year-old Amerigo collects rags and is always hungry. Then he gets a place on a children's train to be raised with a family in northern Italy. In her new novel, Viola Ardone sensitively tells how this experience shaped his life.

It's a piece of Italian history that is similar to Germany's but long forgotten: Immediately after the Second World War, around 100,000 needy boys and girls from the bombed-out south of Italy were taken by train to the more affluent north. There they lived in families, received regular food, new clothes and went to school. Many of the children were able to escape hunger and misery as a result. For some it was the beginning of a new life.

With her novel, the Italian author Viola Ardone evokes the memory of this initiative supported by the Communist Party. "A train full of hope" is a surprise hit and has now been translated into 30 languages. After the book was published in Italy, "many people talked about this time again - no longer with shame, but with pride," says Ardone in an interview with Bertelsmann-Verlag, which published the book in German in the translation by Esther Hansen is available.

Ardone chooses seven-year-old Amerigo Speranza, who gets a seat on one of the special trains in 1946, as the first-person narrator for her novel. The boy comes from a slum in Naples and is called the "Nobel Prize" there because he knows so much. He doesn't know his father, he grows up with his gruff, taciturn mother Antonietta, a seamstress who can neither read nor write. Every day Amerigo collects rags, which his mother then washes, repairs and sells, while hunger is his constant companion.

On the day of departure to the north, there is a lot of hustle and bustle at the train station. Amerigo and the other children vacillate between anticipation and the pain of saying goodbye and tell each other horror stories - because who knows if they won't end up in Siberia, where children are eaten for breakfast? "I didn't want to reconstruct a historical period, I wanted to recreate the experience of one of the children," says Ardone. "I wanted to get on one of the trains, see my mother disappear on the horizon, excited and a little scared to discover a new world."

For Amerigo, this new world lies in Emilia-Romagna. He quickly felt at home in his host family near Modena. There he experiences the warmth and affection that his mother cannot give him. And for the first time in his life he's wearing shoes that are a bit too small but haven't been crooked by other children, and to his great amazement he has an entire room to himself.

Amerigo discovered his love for classical music through his foster father Alcide, an instrument maker. The boy likes to hang out with Alcide in his workshop: "It's like I'm an out of tune instrument too and he's making me new again before they send me back to where I came from." A year later, Amerigo returns to Naples. His mother has become a little stranger to him. When she sells the violin that Amerigo's foster father made especially for him due to lack of money, the boy runs away and gets back on a train heading north.

The reader experiences most of the novel through the eyes of the little boy. You'll be there when Amerigo counts shoes on the streets of Naples: "Healthy shoe: one point up; broken shoe: one point down; new shoe: asterisk". Or when his mother hands him a small apple through the train window and he throws her the coat he just got from the organizers so she can sew something out of it. The last quarter of the book then takes place in 1994, when Amerigo is a well-known violinist and is confronted with his past in Naples, which he believed to have left behind.

With little Amerigo, Ardone has created a protagonist who makes it very easy to like him. The childlike, sympathetic language, for which the translator Hansen found a touching tonality in German, also contributes to this. Although the story as a whole could have digged a little deeper, Ardone writes very sensitively about what the "Child Deportation" may have meant for many boys and girls. Amerigo is able to free himself from poverty by playing the violin, but at the same time he is tormented by a lifelong inner turmoil.