Tuesday, January 25, 2011

Book review: When We Were Strangers, by Pamela Schoenewaldt

Just before she dies, Irma Vitale’s mother warns her, “Don’t die with strangers.” Pamela Schoenewaldt’s debut novel imagines a rich yet traumatic journey for her heroine, a young woman possessed of a quiet inner strength as she steps out alone into a wide, unknown world. In the 1880s, life in the Italian mountain village of Opi is slender and brittle. Her ancestors found only misfortune after leaving their home, but with a plain face and too small of a dowry, twenty-year-old Irma sees no other choice.

In crystal clear language and with a keen eye for detail, the author conveys Irma’s apprehension and innocence with touching empathy. Equipped with her few belongings, considerable skill in needlework, and money saved by her beloved Zia Carmela, she heads out on foot towards Naples in search of a ship to America and the older brother who had left several years earlier.  From the Servia’s smoky steerage quarters to a workhouse in Cleveland to a shop in Chicago, she holds on to her dream of sewing dresses for fine ladies. She runs up against many obstacles – her poverty, looks, and lack of English skills, to name just a few. Bright and eager to learn, she overcomes most of these setbacks but risks getting defeated by others.

Wherever Irma goes, she meets people at different stages of integration into the American way of life. Everyone’s a stranger at first, but although they may speak different languages, they find comfort in being strangers together. Molly, an ambitious Irishwoman, becomes her closest friend. Madame Hélène, a seamstress from Alsace, becomes her employer and mentor; a Polish ragman and his family support her when she needs it most; and Sofia, a midwife and healer from her home country, influences her life in surprising ways. Irma passes her time sewing gorgeous embroidery depicting flowers and places she left behind, and filters her view of this new land through Italian eyes. On a train through Pennsylvania, she glimpses a “rosary of towns clutching the tracks.” When she tastes a banana for the first time, her delight comes through on the page.

As she grows and changes, establishing strong friendships and ties to her surroundings, so do her goals, and the discovery of her true calling proves that opportunities can arise from painful circumstances. This sensitively written tale of a singular woman is a poignant tribute to the millions of immigrants woven into the fabric of late 19th-century America. Each of them, the novel implies, has a story worth hearing.

When We Were Strangers is published today by Harper in trade paperback at $14.99 (328pp).  There's an informative "history behind the story" section at the end.  I think this would make an excellent women's book club choice.


  1. Thanks for a very informative post

  2. This looks like an awesome read--you're right, it would be fun to read with a group of women!

  3. Dying with strangers: what a striking warning.

    But there could be worse things.