||This article's plot summary may be too long or excessively detailed. (October 2007)|
Jerome Barberin lives with his wife in a little French town, Chavanon. He usually isn't home, since he works in Paris as a mason. One day he finds a baby boy. The boy wears very fine clothes, so apparently his parents are rich. Barberin offers to take care of the child, hoping to get a good reward. He gives the boy to his wife, and calls him Remi. Afterwards, Barberin gets injured in an accident. He blames his employer and hopes to receive financial compensation in a trial. The trial costs a lot of money, and Barberin tells his wife to sell her cow (her main source of wealth) and to get rid of Remi. She does the former.
When Rémi is eight years old, and this is where the story starts, Barberin comes home unexpectedly. He sees that Rémi is still there and decides to lose no time getting rid of him. The next day Barberin meets a travelling artist in the local pub. His name is Signor Vitalis, and he travels through France with three dogs - Capi, Zerbino and Dolce - and a monkey, Joli-Cœur. Vitalis offers to take care of Rémi and Rémi leaves his childhood home, without even a chance to say goodbye to his foster mother (who would have done anything to prevent the transaction) and starts a journey of the roads of France. It turns out that Vitalis is a kind man, certainly better company than Barberin. Vitalis teaches him to play the harp and to read. Often Rémi is hungry and has no roof over his head; but in the animals, especially in Capi, he gains dear friends, and in Vitalis he finds the father he lacks. Together they travel through France, and they earn a living by giving musical and stage performances.
When they are in Toulouse, a sad incident, which reflects the unjust social structure of 19th Century France, puts Vitalis into jail. It is not easy for a ten-year-old to feed himself and four animals under his care, and they nearly starve, when they meet the "Swan" - a little river ship owned by Mrs. Milligan and her ill son Arthur. They take Rémi in to entertain the sick boy, but soon start seeing a person in Remi, and he becomes part of the family. He learns that Arthur used to have an elder brother, who disappeared before Arthur was born, and Mrs. Milligan's brother-in-law, James, has attempted in vain to find him back. This was advantageous for James Milligan, since, by the English law, he was to inherit all of his brother's fortune if he died childless. This did not work, because soon Arthur was born. After two months Vitalis is released from jail, Remi and the Milligans like to stay together, but Vitalis wants Rémi back, and so they say goodbye. However, Mrs. Milligan judges that Vitalis is a very kind and honest man.
Vitalis tells Rémi that he has done a good choice: one must eat his own bread. But on the way to Paris in a snowstorm Zerbino and Dolce are eaten by wolves in the woods, and Joli-Cœur catches pneumonia. In an attempt to raise money for the doctor, Remi and Vitalis give a performance and Vitalis sings. Remi has never before heard Vitalis sing so beautifully. And not only Rémi is bewildered: a young, and apparently rich lady tells Vitalis that she is amazed to hear his wonderful voice. Vitalis reacts angrily. He explains his skill to the lady by telling that he used to be a singer's servant. The lady explains he has a resemblance to the singer Vitalo Pedrotti from the Scala di Milano who is disparated. He even shows no gladness when the lady gives a gold coin to Capi. They return to Joli-Cœur with the money, but it's too late, Joli-Cœur is dead.
They now continue their journey to Paris. Vitalis decides to leave Rémi with a "padrone" for the winter, while he trains other animals. Another institution of 19th Century France, a "padrone" was a man who kept a group of boys, sold by their poverty-stricken parents, who worked for him. Vitalis brings Remi to a "padrone" he knows - Garofoli. Garofoli isn't home, and Vitalis tells Rémi to wait there, and that he will be back soon. Rémi passes there two horrible hours - waiting for Garofoli and talking to an ill-looking boy, Mattia, who keeps houseworking because Garofoli believes him too stupid and incapable of working outside, but keeping the soup pot locked so that Mattia could not eat from it. When the other boys and Garofoli return, Rémi witnesses how terribly Garofoli abuses those who do not bring home the amount of money required: he beats and starves them. When Vitalis comes back and sees how the boys are being flogged, he tells Garofoli that he could go to the police, but Garofoli threatens back to tell "some people just one name which will make Vitalis red from shame". Vitalis takes the wondering and grateful Rémi not to return to Garofoli ever.
But this act of love costs Vitalis his life. That night, unable to find a place to stay, Vitalis and Rémi collapse in the snowstorm under a fence.
Rémi wakes up in a bed, with people standing around him: a man, two boys and two girls. The little girl, of about 5–6 years old, watches Rémi with talking eyes. Then Rémi learns the terrible truth: Vitalis is dead. In an attempt to discover his identity, the policemen take Rémi to Garofoli, who reveals the truth: Vitalis used to be the famous Italian singer Carlo Balzani. When he got older, his voice got worse, and he was so ashamed for this that he decided to disappear. He changed his identity to Vitalis.
The family take Rémi and Capi in. Rémi gets a real father, the gardener Pierre Acquin, two brothers, Alexis and Benjamin, and two sisters, Étienette and little mute Lise. Rémi especially adores Lise. He teaches her to read and plays the harp for her. Lise loves a Napolitan song in particular. Rémi becomes a gardener, and years of hard work and merry Sundays follow. But after two years a terrible hailstrom ruins the glass in the greenhouse, and Acquin is in debts which he cannot pay and has therefore to enter a debt jail. The children are to go to uncles and aunts, in several French towns. Although the children insist that Rémi also belongs to the family, none of the uncles and aunts is willing to take care of Rémi. Broken-hearted again, vowing to his brothers and sisters to visit them on his way and bring father news from them, Rémi takes his harp and Capi and leaves to the big roads.
He hasn't gone long until he meets a companion. Mattia, the boy from Garofoli, is starving on the streets of Paris. Garofoli is in prison for beating a boy to death. Mattia pleads Remi to take him into his troupe. Remi is scared: with him, Mattia might die of hunger as much as alone. But Mattia convinces him that two will never die of hunger because one helps the other. Thus, "Remi's troupe" consists now of two twelve-year-olds and a dog. Mattia is a gifted violinist, he plays other instruments too, and he worked some time in a circus, where they had two English clowns, so he knows some English.
First the boys turn to visit Alexis, who now lives with his Uncle Gaspard (Father Acquin's brother) in the mining town Varses, where he works in the mine with his uncle. When Alexis is wounded and unable to work for a while, Remi volunteers to replace him. One of the miners is nicknamed magister, he is an old and wise man. He becomes a good friend and he explains the history of coal. One day the mine is flooded, probably by the river which flows overhead. Seven miners, including Uncle Gaspard, the magister and Remi, find shelter, but are trapped. They are waiting to be rescued, but don't even know if the rescue works are taking place. One of the men confesses a crime, blames himself for the disaster and commits suicide. The others spend a fortnight underground, hungry, beaten, but optimistic - and at last are saved. Capi is mad of happiness; Mattia is in tears. He says he never believed that Remi could be dead, and Remi is proud of his friend's strong belief in him. This incident shows the terrible state of child labour in 19th Century France but it also serves to bring closer Remi and Mattia: since that incident they are friends for life and death.
Remi wants Mattia to learn music and they visit a musician. Mr. Espinassous is shocked by Mattia's great talent and tries to convince him to stay and learn, but Mattia never wants to leave Remi. The boys now head for Chavanon where they hope to meet Remi's foster mother Barberin. During the trip they saved their money, hoping to buy a cow for mother Barberin. When they pass through Ussel, not far from Chavanon, they buy a cow, to replace beloved Rosette, who was sold when Barberin had his accident. To make sure that they will not buy a bad cow, they ask a vet for help. The vet is very friendly and the boys buy a wonderful cow.
In the next town the boys are accused of stealing the cow. Why would two street musicians have a cow, after all? They explain their story to the mayor. The mayor knows Mother Barberin, he heard about the accident in the mine, and he is willing to believe that the boys are honest. To make sure, the vet is called to testify, and the boys can continue their journey.
Remi and Mother Barberin finally meet. Mother Barberin tells Remi that Barberin is in Paris in search of Remi, because his real parents appear to be in search of him. However, Mother Barberin knows very little, because Barberin never told her any details. Remi is eager to know his real parents. Remi and Mattia decide to return to Paris and see Barberin.
On the way to Paris, they pass through Dreuzy, where they pay a visit to Lise Acquin. Remi and Lise are very fond of each other. When the boys arrive in Paris, they learn that Barberin has died. Remi writes a letter to Mother Barberin. Mother Barberin replies and she encloses a letter that was sent by Barberin before he died. It mentions the address of a lawyer's office in London, which is in charge of the search for Remi. So the boys go to London, where they are led straight to Remi's parents. Their name is Driscoll. Remi is terribly disappointed: the Driscolls are cold to him, his father keeps the boys locked. They turn out to be thieves and use Capi to help them in their work.
The Driscolls have a visitor. It is a man who seems to be interested in Remi, but Remi does not understand English well enough. The visitor does not meet Mattia, but Mattia overhears their conversation. The visitor is James Milligan and he appears to be Arthur's uncle. He hopes that Arthur will die, so that he will inherit the fortune of his late brother. The boys agree that Mrs. Milligan must be warned, but they have no idea where to find her. Mattia meets someone he knows. It is Bob, a clown from the circus where Mattia used to work. Bob turns out to be a very fine friend.
When Remi is accused of a robbery committed by his parents, Bob and Mattia help him escape from prison. With the help of Bob's brother, a sailor, they return to France. They go and search for Mrs. Milligan, to warn her for her brother-in-law. This is easier than it seems, since her boat, the "Swan", is a remarkable boat, and they soon hear that people have seen her. They only have to follow the rivers and canals. On their way they pass through Dreuzy where they hope to meet Lise again. However, they hear that Lise's uncle has died, and that a kind English lady, who journeyed on a boat, has offered to take care of Lise. That must have been Mrs. Milligan. Of course that is another incentive to go and find the "Swan". Remi and Mattia trace the "Swan" across France to Switzerland. They find the boat, but she is deserted. They inquire, and they find that the boat was unable to journey further up the river, and that the family continued their journey by coach, probably to Vevey. When they get to the town where "the English woman with the ill boy and the mute girl" are supposed to be, they start singing under every fence. It takes several days before they find the family. One day, when Remi sings his Napolitan song, he overhears a scream and a weak voice that continues the song. They run to the voice and find Lise, whose voice has returned to her when she heard her long-lost Remi. The boys now find that James Milligan is there too, and Remi is afraid to meet him, so he hides. Mattia is not afraid - James does not know Mattia. Mattia immediately tells Mrs. Milligan their story. Mrs. Milligan presumes that Remi must be her lost eldest son, but she tells Mattia that this should not be told to Remi until she is sure about it. She arranges that the boys can stay in a hotel, where they can have plenty of food, comfortable beds, and where they are visited by a barber and a tailor. After a few days Mrs. Milligan invites the boys, where they meet Mother Barberin. Mrs. Milligan has apparently sent for her. Mother Barberin shows Remi's baby clothes. Mrs. Milligan recognises these as the clothes her boy wore when he was stolen. Mrs. Milligan happily declares that Remi is her son, to join his "mother, brother and those - she pointed at Lise and Mattia - who loved you in your misery". It is clear that Mr. Driscoll has stolen the boy as a job for James Milligan.
This story has a happy ending: Remi finds his family, and discovers he is the heir of a fortune. Mattia's dearest little sister Cristina is sent for from Italy and they all grow up together. Arthur gets well and becomes an athlete. Mattia becomes a famous violinist. Remi marries Lise and they have a son named Mattia, whose babysitter is Mother Barberin.
The book ends with the score of the Napolitan song.
Film and television
Several movies were made after the novel:
- Sans famille (F 1934)
- Senza famiglia (I 1946)
- Le Théâtre de la jeunesse: Sans famille (made for TV, F 1965)
- Nobody's Child (Hong Kong film) (苦兒流浪記, 1961)
- Chibikko Remi to Meiken Kapi (Japan 1970) – feature film by Toei Animation
- Nobody's Boy: Remi (Ie Naki Ko) (Japan 1977-78) – 51-episode anime TV series by Tokyo Movie Shinsha
- Sans famille (France 1981) – 6-part TV series by TF1 starring Petula Clark
- Bez semyi (Soviet Union 1981)* (Russian)
- Nobody's Girl (家なき子 Ie Naki Ko ) (Japan) – 2 seasons TV drama series with 25 episodes in total, starring Yumi Adachi, Takeshi Naito, Yoshiko Tanaka, et al. Initially it was produced as a 3 seasons modern day homage to the original masterpiece by Hector Malot but in the season 2 the more realistic and controversial themes caused disapproval from some other viewers 
- Remi, Nobody's Girl (家なき子レミ Ie Naki Ko Remi ) (Japan) – 26-episode anime TV series, the final installment in Nippon Animation's World Masterpiece Theatre series. This version made major changes to the storyline, transforming Remi (voiced by legendary pop star/voice actress Mitsuko Horie) into a girl and making her a child singer. The series was later translated into English by the anime television network, Animax, who aired the complete series (all 26 episodes) across its respective networks worldwide, including Southeast Asia and South Asia
- Sans famille/Das Findelkind (F/D/CZ, 2000)
- "Без семьи (фильм, 1984) — Википедия" (in (Russian)). Ru.wikipedia.org. Retrieved 2012-07-11.
|Wikimedia Commons has media related to Sans Famille.|
- (French) Sans Famille, audio version