In “The Children’s Train” by Viola Ardone (HarperVia, out now) a little-known period in Italian history is the focus of the novel – and a fascinating look at post-World War II Italy as seen through the eyes of a young boy.
The novel focuses on Amerigo, a 7-year-old living in Naples with his single mother, Antonietta, taking on odd jobs to scrape by. Their neighbors have just as little as they do. Life is tough and unforgiving, and there’s not much food or money to spare.
One day, Amerigo and the other neighborhood kids learn that a train will be taking some of them to spend the winter with families up north, where there’s plenty of food. With name tags pinned to their clothing, the children set off on a journey away from their parents. As Amerigo is welcomed by his adoptive family, he’s introduced to a life of opportunity, where his musical talent is encouraged rather than belittled, as his mother does. There is food and warm clothing, but most of all, there is possibility. When his allotted time comes to an end, he must make a heartbreaking decision between this possibility and the blood ties to his mother, with whom he shares a difficult, distant love.
Prior to the war, Southern Italy was poorer than its Northern counterpart, but the effects of the war (and subsequent Allied occupation of Naples from 1943-45) disproportionately affected the Southern regions. Cities like Naples and Cassino were heavily damaged by Allied bombs.
Communism played a big role in post-war Italy; the PCI (Partito Comunista Italia) was the second largest political party in the late 1940s and remained highly influential into the 1970s, when it transitioned to democratic socialism. The UDI (Unione Donne in Italia), a Communist party of Italian women, began an initiative to save children in the South from malnutrition and disease by transporting them to participating families in the Northern-Central part of the country. These families weren’t rich by any means, but they had much more than their Southern neighbors. This effort was their way of showing solidarity with their neighbors.
“I was amazed by the generosity, the spirit of solidarity of the families who hosted those children. They weren’t rich people, very often they were farmers, small ranchers who didn’t hold back when asked to add another dish to their table,” says Ardone. “Today I don’t know if it would be possible, I don’t want to say that we have become less generous, but certainly more individualistic and less willing to listen to the needs of the other people.”
It was an effort that was met with some skepticism; there were rumors that Communists ate children, or had otherwise nefarious plans to keep the children instead of returning them at the end of the time. (In the book, one woman takes a group picture of the children to prove to their parents back home that they are healthy and alive.)
Incredibly, despite its scale — at least 70,000 children were transferred within a few years from the end of the war — the “happiness trains,” as they were called, have been all but lost to history. The first train left Rome’s central station on January 19, 1946, carrying about 1500 children. Later trains would set off from Cassino, Naples and Sicily.
“I discovered that this story is remembered only by those who lived it. Many people, reading the book, thought it was a story of my invention. It’s strange because it was an initiative that involved many families, and yet the memory was practically lost,” says Ardone. “Speaking with some witnesses, I discovered, for example, that many of them had not told their children or grandchildren about their adventure because they were ashamed of having been so poor, as children, that they were forced to change families for a period of their life.”