Book Review: The Children’s Train (IlTreno Dei Bambini) by Viola Ardone

Book Review: Il Treno Dei Bambini ( The Children’s Train) by Viola Ardone

I like to pick out the books I read and I smile kindly, appreciatively, when books are sent or given to me.  However, I reluctantly accept them.  After all, how can anyone really know the book I need at the moment? I have a stubborn belief that books suggested to me are somehow too removed from my own taste, too alien. I’ve always believed my personal vibe would lead me to the perfect book.  Well, lately, I’ve been mistaken.

The last several books recommended by a good friend were wonderful.  And, the one given to me by my sister is exceptional.  The book sat on my night table for weeks, its title suggesting a journey I did not wish to take.  I avoided it like you avoid making a painful phone call or engaging with a gruff co-worker.  Weeks later, there it was, waiting for me.

I had good reasons why I shouldn’t read it.  It is in Italian, and although Italian is my native language, I have spent the last thirty years teaching high school English and have had little practice with my native tongue.  Plus, it’s painful to go back and read about the time period of this story.  It takes place after WWII when southern Italy was in economic ruin.  It was the time period that my father talked about, the time when poverty and survival meant being sharp and ruthless.  Before he passed away, he talked of that time with such sadness and empathy that I had no desire to relive those times even through the eyes of a fictional seven-year-old boy: Amerigo.

“It will take too long to read,” I complained when my sister –an accomplished architect who recently finished a master’s program in Italian, publishing a thesis on Italo Calvino’s Le città invisibili and architecture: Quando la letteratura si incrocia con l’architetturaasked me if I had started the book.  I whined, “It’s just too sad, too sentimental for me. ” I suppose she understood, but eventually, I started reading it in Italian and I was absolutely mesmerized.

The language of this book is beautiful and evocative.  I highly recommend the Italian version because it simply adds a layer of authenticity that is hard to replicate in translation.  Initially, I plodded through, reading only a chapter or so a day, but as I read, it all came back to me: the syntax, the layered meanings, the proverbs, the raw images of the young Amerigo, born at the crux of poverty and despair.  Yet, as I read, I regained what was as stark as the poverty: a willingness to open one’s eyes to the struggles without flinching. A bravery that I had forgotten existed.  As Amerigo wanders around the town looking for work, play, and adventure with his friend Tommasino  I saw a resilience and youthful bravado that was exhilarating.  He doesn’t sugar coat anything.  He sees the world in all its starkness and misery.

Amerigo knows he’s poor.  He knows he’s good at math and terrible at writing.  He notices shoes because they are too small and full of holes.  He assigns points according to how worn  or new the shoes of passersby appear to him.  He promises himself treats that never seem to materialize.  He knows his mother is poor and unable to provide for him properly, but he is still unprepared for her decision to send him on a train heading to northern Italy where communist families have pledged to take in indigent ruffians from the south.

She puts him on that train and it’s at this point that I wanted to put the book down.  I really thought the rest of this would be about the abuse he would surely suffer.  It would be a painful read.  However, I continued reading and was quite surprised.  Amerigo is treated very well and earns the accolades of his new family. from the north. He is even offered an opportunity to learn how to play the violin.  It turns out he has a talent for music.  He also has a talent for resourcefulness and hope even when there is no reason to expect a positive outcome.  The narrative follows Amerigo as he experiences the delightful food: prosciutto, cheeses, and delicacies that he learns to enjoy.  He saves an apple that his mother had given him before she watched him leave on the train.  The apple remains uneaten and eventually shrivels, just like his relationship with his mother.  In fact, without giving away any more of this beautifully woven narrative, I can reveal that the cost of self-actualization is the relationship with his mother.

Amerigo’s world is not foreign to us after all, as we all make the ultimate decision: do we become who we were meant to be at the cost of giving up our most treasured relationships?  So many people never have to make this choice as they are born into families that fully support their development, but for many, there is no acceptance, only a choice.  Amerigo’s mother cannot nurture him or provide for his needs.  He sees the possibilities offered by his family from the north and is unwilling to settle for the narrow confines of his birthplace.  He has to make a brutal decision, yet it is one that even his mother resigns herself to by the end of the novel when she follows his success as a musician.

I didn’t want to read this book because I feared it would take me down those narrow streets of my youth.  It would immerse me in the language of struggle and survival.  It would take me to a time when I was vulnerable and captive to the cadence of beautiful words spoken in heartbreaking clarity.  The book has done all of this, but also reminded me of the authenticity of those times and the clarity of living one’s life, a life just as important as the life of others who started out with comforts and warm quilts, good food, and stability.  Amerigo mourns the mother he never had, the type of mother who could have followed him on his journey, but he accepts the choice he made and the reader celebrates with him.

Some books I choose for myself.  As it turns out, some are given and accepted at the right time.  I hope readers will make time for this book.

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