[Review] When We Were Strangers by Pamela Schoenewaldt

Title: When We Were Strangers: A Novel
Author: Pamela Schoenewaldt
Page: 310 pages
Genre: Historical Fiction
Subject: Italians - United States, Immigrants, Dressmakers, Chicago (Illinois), Women
First Published: 2011

Too poor and too plain to marry, and unwilling to burden what family she has left, twenty-year-old Irma Vitale sees no choice but to flee her Italian mountain village. Risking rough passage across the Atlantic and the dangers facing a single woman in an unfamiliar land, Irma boldly pursues a new life sewing dresses for gentlewomen.
Swept up in the crowded streets of nineteenth-century America, Irma finds not only workshop servitude and miserable wages but also seeds of friendship in the raw immigrant quarters. When her determination to find a place for herself leads at last to a Chicago shop, Irma blossoms from the guidance of an austere Alsatian dressmaker, sewing fabrics and patterns more beautiful than she’d ever imagined. Then tragedy strikes and her tenuous peace is shattered. From the rubble, and in the face of human cruelty and kindness, suffering and hope, Irma prevails, discovering a talent she’d never imagined and an unlikely family patched together by the common threads that unite us all.

- Synopsis from book cover

“Irma, don’t die with strangers…” was her mother’s last words before she died. Irma has heard stories about how her uncle’s venture outside their small village in Opi ended with his death on the beach in Sicily. Also stories about her grandfather and his father before him, both died with strangers after leaving Opi. So when her brother Carlo asked Irma to follow him to America, she stood by her mother’s words. But soon trouble at home forced her to leave. Encouraged by her aunt Zia, “Go now, Irma. Be proud and God keep you”, Irma put her fears aside and set about her journey to America.

This is an excellent historical fiction of Irma Vitale’s journey to seek a better life in America, first in Cleveland, then to Chicago and finally to San Francisco. We read about her struggles and difficulties but most of all, of her perseverance and determination to make a better life.

From the very first page, Irma Vitale’s voice spoke to me. I felt her sorrow, her fears and her struggles. I really cared about her. Schoenewaldt conjured up a story with high degree of research from Irma’s passage to medical references during the 1880s, that is so vivid and believable, heart-warming and inspiring. I particularly loved how the story concluded in the last chapter, having prevailed at last, Irma never forget her roots and that she’s still Irma Vitale of Opi.


This does sound like a book that I'd enjoy. Thanks for the great review.
Your blog is hazardous to my cash flow situation. This is another one I hadn't heard of but now want to read :P
Sidne said…
stopping by to read your latest review. sound good
Booksnyc said…
I LOVED this book - it was so well told and Irma is a character I became attached to. Glad you liked it too!