When We Were Strangers: A Novel by Pamela Schoenewaldt chronicles the emigration of Irma Vitale from Opi, Italy to the United States. The story is at once heartbreaking and hopeful as Irma moves from the harrowing boat trip across the Atlantic to a boarding house in Chicago - along the way her innocence is violently taken from her but she also discovers a strength no one knew she had.
This work of historical fiction is set in the 1880's and opens in Irma's village of Opi, Italy. Irma is coming to the realization that there is nothing left for her in Opi - her brother Carlo has already emigrated to Cleveland, her mother has died and her father has recently "taken up" with Assunta - a local woman considerably younger than him. Irma is a talented embroiderer but she is considered too unattractive to be married - in a small farming village that leaves her with few options. Despite her reservations, she decides to leave Opi behind and go to America.
You Will Die With Strangers
One of Irma's reservations is her fear of living among strangers - coming from a small village where everyone knows each other's families for generations. When she was alive, her mother would tell her "If you leave Opi, you will die with strangers". This caution haunts Irma and follows her across the ocean; throughout the novel there are a number of poignant scenes of immigrants dying and Irma holding vigil for them so that they do not die alone. Irma also mourns being away from her own family when one of them dies saying " . . . those you love and leave behind will be dead to you. Someone else will close their eyes". There is something about the importance of the ritual which surrounds death and mourning and not being able to take part in that while you are separated that I found terribly heartbreaking.
Irma is such an endearing character - I found myself rooting for her throughout the novel. Even as early as on her boat passage to the US, Irma began to show signs of her developing strength. When asked what she knows about Cleveland, she replies, "Nothing. Except that I had chosen it, having chosen so little in my life." Like many immigrants, there is an element of choice in her move to a new country even though she has so many fears and misses those at home terribly. In time, she begins to assimilate and realizes she is different now from those left behind and Opi and even those just now arriving. At the same time, with her broken English she would certainly be recognized as a foreigner in Chicago - being trapped between both worlds is something most immigrants experience and can leave one feeling very lonely. Irma continues on, however, determined to make a life for herself in this country she has chosen.
Historical fiction, a great immigrant story and an endearing main character - this book has it all! I am certainly looking forward to what this debut author has in store for us in the future. You can read more about the author, Pamela Schoenewaldt, and her own experience as a foreigner living in Naples in this guest post. You can also hear her chatting with the Book Club Girl on March 7th.
Thanks to Julie at Harper Collins, I have two copies of When We Were Strangers: A Novel to give away. One will go to a participant in The Immigrant Stories Challenge and the other to any other entrant. This give away is open worldwide and I will select winners on Friday, March 11th. To enter, just fill out the form below. Good Luck!