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When We Were Strangers
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When We Were Strangers

4.2 135
by Pamela Schoenewaldt

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“The people as real as your own family, and the tale realistic enough to be any American’s.”
—Nancy E. Turner, author of These is My Words


A moving, powerful, and evocative debut novel, When We Were Strangers by Pamela Schoenewaldt heralds the arrival of superb new voice in American fiction. A tale rich in color,


“The people as real as your own family, and the tale realistic enough to be any American’s.”
—Nancy E. Turner, author of These is My Words


A moving, powerful, and evocative debut novel, When We Were Strangers by Pamela Schoenewaldt heralds the arrival of superb new voice in American fiction. A tale rich in color, character, and vivid historical detail, it chronicles the tumultuous life journey of a young immigrant seamstress, as she travels from her isolated Italian mountain village through the dark  corners of late nineteenth century America. A historical novel that readers of Geraldine Brooks, Nancy Turner, Frances de Pontes Peebles, and Debra Dean will most certainly cherish, When We Were Strangers will live in the mind and the heart long after its last page is turned.

Editorial Reviews

Publishers Weekly
Schoenewaldt's heartbreaking debut is the late 19th century immigrant coming-of-age story of poor, plain Irma Vitale. When Irma'smother dies, she warns her 16-year-old daughter that leaving their little Italian village dooms her to die among strangers. A few years later, Irma, frightened of her increasingly lustful father, leaves her village and, armed only with her sewing skills and a small dowry, secures passage on the Servia, where she meets the first in a series of helpful strangers who will color, shape, and add the occasional zest of danger (her face is scarred by the time she disembarks) to her journeys. In America, her friendships with a few determined women--Lula, an African-American cook; Molly, an Irish maid; and Sofia, an Italian nurse--help keep her afloat and moving from a Cleveland sweatshop, through misery and rejuvenation in Chicago, and, finally, to the lush hills in San Francisco. Though some plot turns are played too melodramatically, Irma's adventures and redeeming evolution make this a serious book club contender. (Feb.)

Product Details

HarperCollins Publishers
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5.30(w) x 7.90(h) x 0.90(d)

What People are Saying About This

Nancy E. Turner
"The people as real as your own family, and the tale realistic enough to be any American's."—Nancy E. Turner, author of These Is My Words

Meet the Author

Pamela Schoenewaldt is the USA Today bestselling author of When We Were Strangers and Swimming in the Moon. Her short stories have appeared in literary magazines in England, France, Italy, and the United States. She taught writing for the University of Maryland, European Division, and the University of Tennessee.

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When We Were Strangers 4.2 out of 5 based on 0 ratings. 135 reviews.
Mirella More than 1 year ago
If you love a good tale interwoven with both heart-break and dreams, loss and success, you will truly enjoy When We Were Strangers by Pamela Schoenewald. Irma Vitale is a poverty-stricken young woman of marriageable age who lives in the small village of Opi nestled in the Abruzzi mountains of Italy. Her brother and closest friend departs for America, hopeful to escape poverty. He tells her he is going to Cleveland and departs soon afterwards. As more and more youths from Opi and neighbouring villages depart for America, Irma's chances at making a good marriage dwindle. Her aging aunt encourages her to go to America, find her brother, and make a better life for herself. And so, with a secret stash of money passed down from mothers to daughters in the family, Irma sets out and boards a ship to America. The reader is then swept into a heart-wrenching and intriguing tale depicting the hardships of immigrants from the crossing to the desperation and struggles they face the moment they take their first steps into the new world. I could not help but be touched by this story - my own mother and aunts also immigrated alone to the new world from their own small town in the Abruzzi region of Italy for the same reasons and alone, like Irma. I became wholly immersed in this credible tale of poor Irma, finding parallels with the stories my relatives repeated to me of their own shocking experiences. Every detail of this novel felt authentic - from Italian village life, to the struggles with finding work, to being cheated, and finding a friend or two along the way to help. It is an inspiring tale of strength, determination, and courage, paying homage to the many women who bravely faced the pain of loss of hearth and kin to scrape out a new life in a land brimming with hope. Vivid detail, heart-felt emotion, and highly developed characters make this novel stand out, lending believability and vividness. I loved this novel and it is most definitely one of my all-time favourite books of all time. I highly recommend it!
MacieIN More than 1 year ago
This is a beautiful story of a strong young woman who overcomes many hardships to achieve her dreams. It is also a well researched story of the life immigrants who came to America. I highly recommend it.
Heart2Heart More than 1 year ago
We know that at some points in our lives our families have migrated to different areas of the country in search of a better life. Too often we fail to see just how wonderful those difficult decisions were to make and the consequences that resulted along the way. Until now! When We Were Strangers is the newest novel by Pamela Schoenewaldt, that takes the reader on the journey in the life of one such remarkable lady, Irma Vitale, who we find living in Italy in a small part of town called Opi. It doesn't have the best reputation and the only hope Irma has of making her life better is marriage to a man who doesn't drink and works hard. Unfortunately the prospects for this are worse at best. There are only 5 men in the village and two of them are promised to the baker's family leaving the worst available. Yet time and time again Irma has been living in the lies of low self esteem, when people call her ugly and spread rumors about the girls from Opi being street whores, not of which is true but growing up in the sheltered mountain town makes them more believable. Only when her cousin Carlo leaves for America and the promise of something better, is Irma willing to look outside her small town and hope for something more. This is Irma's story of making her way in a world alone, the difficulties and challenges she must face along the way. Her mother's death, her father's drunkenness and the prospects of making a family of her own someday. We get to journey with her and see the light behind an immigrants struggle to survive and in the process we can see hope at the end of the road. I received this wonderful book compliments of TLC Book Tours in exchange for my honest review and marveled at how eloquently the author takes us into each new part of Irma's quest for a better life, from the small town of Opi where it began to the new life offered to each immigrant in the land of the free. This one rates 5 out of 5 stars and offers a new belief that there are no such thing as strangers when you are willing to make friends and believe in something more!
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Pamela Schoenewaldt's work of historical fiction, When We Were Strangers, is an elegantly written novel. It captures the struggles and triumphs of the millions of immigrants who have shaped our country through the eyes of one young Italian woman. Character development and sensory description are Schoenwaldt's strengths. Stitched together with fascinating historical details, ranging from needlework to 19th Century medical practices, she skillfully creates a world of smells, tastes, sights and sounds in both the old country and the new. Her narrator, Irma, becomes every woman who has ever struggled and triumphed over social mores and prohibitions, the limitations of gender, poverty and lack of education, a new land and a new language. Neither she, nor the many others she encounters on her journey, are idealized or stereotyped. They feel authentic; and I, for one, became attached to them and felt as though I had grown to know them well in the pages of this impressive first novel.
JanetLynn More than 1 year ago
Whenever snow or rain storms keep me indoors, my favorite thing to do is snuggle up in front of the fire place with a good book. Yesterday, I picked up When We Were Strangers by Pamela Schoenewaldt, and was literally transported to the 1880's. This beautifully written and remarkable story about a young Italian girl's journey from her village in Opi, Italy to America, was both riveting and memorable. Schoenewaldt's exquisite prose carves out a heartfelt tale about determination and the will to survive against all odds. From the first time I met protagonist, Irma Vitale, I was emotionally captivated by her circumstances and drawn into her life. A single women and immigrant struggling to endure seemingly impossible obstacles, Irma is a character I am not likely to forget. I couldn't put the book down and recommend it to anyone who likes to read about the resilience of the human spirit. Five stars for When We Were Strangers.
Kaylee50 More than 1 year ago
A detailed book on immigration and true perseverance. I couldn't put this book down. I thought about Irma Vitale and the wonderful strangers she met along the way long after I finished reading this story. It is a well written book with wonderfully drawn characters.
The_Reading_Reviewer More than 1 year ago
Irma Vitale started life out in the poor, desolate town of Opi, Italy. She dreamed of better things and a more advanced life than the one she was leading. He journey took her alone to America in the times of Lincoln's reformation. Irma like the country she now lived in would venture forward and Irma believed she too could become someone else but still be true to her roots and upbringing. She missed her family and longed at times for what she had but never regretted her decision despite the agony she had to endure. She started out in Cleveland looking for her brother who left before her but soon moved on to Chicago. Irma had a skill as a seamstress and the talent she possessed to create intricate works of art from pieces of cloth earned her an income and a living enough to move on to San Francisco to start yet again in the field of medicine. Irma was a believer who never stopped to wallow in self-pity and always said thank you for the good this new life brought. Her life was never easy; the times were difficult on good days and despondent on others. She worked hard, never complained and suffered such atrocities no one should endure but still she moved on. But the Opi girl became an American Woman and showed everyone what determination looks like and how to be something when everyone tells you that you are nothing. Irma is an accumulation of each of our ancestries who did not start out but came to America and made a great life for the generations that followed. Poverty was a way of life and Ms. Schonwewaldt writes this with such clarity you stomach starts to grumble with the hunger these people felt. In this time of immigration critiquing it might be nice to have someone read this book and remember that everyone has a dream to live a better life and shouldn't we be proud they believe all this is possible in the United States of America.
Suuze More than 1 year ago
Loved this book! I received it as an advance copy, and you never know how those will be. This is a keeper! This is the late 19th century immigrant coming-of-age story of poor, plain Irma Vitale, a girl from a very small, rural Italian village. It's hard to imagine living as they did then - so isolated and ignorant of how the world works. For that reason, it must have taken great courage to leave and travel to the new world. I enjoyed reading Irma's progress in America, and especially about the strangers she took into her life, as they did for her. A little melodramatic at times, but all in all, a *very* satisfying read. I'll recommend this to my book club when it's released to the public!
JadeWant More than 1 year ago
Another of my “must reads” is WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS. This is a perfect read for a book club. WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS is an emotionally moving story of Irma's journey to find self-confidence and personal empowerment. Set in the late 1800s, Irma Vitale lives in rural Italy in the small village of Opi. There seems to be a family curse that “all Vitales who leave Opi are doomed to die among strangers”. After her mother's death, Irma defies the family "curse" and leaves everything behind and travels all the way to America. This would make a beautiful movie.
harstan More than 1 year ago
Growing up in the small village of Opi in Abruzza on the spine of Italy, Irma Vitale's mamma always warned her never to leave. When Irma was sixteen, her mamma on her deathbed reminded her daughter that "If you leave Opi, you'll die with strangers." For the next few years after her mamma's death, Irma heeded her dying advice, but after Carlo leaves for a place called Cleveland, her father turns increasingly to drink. Aunt Zia Carmello worried about her single niece with no reasonable male prospect to protect her from her father, gives Irma money to flee to family in America. Twenty year old Irma hopes her sewing skills provide her employment as she sails on the Servia across the Atlantic as a young single unprotected female. Though scarred physically and emotionally from the crossing, she makes it to Cleveland where she obtains work in a horrific sweatshop. From the misery of Ohio she goes on to Chicago only to have the Great Fire destroy her dressmaking lifestyle and finally renews it in San Francisco with a precise needle that makes her much more. Her journey across the ocean and the United States enable her to meet fellow other immigrants seeking the American dream too This is a well written timely reminder of the great wave of late nineteenth century immigrants coming to America to act on a dream like business mind ambitious Molly the Irish maid. The strong cast anchored by Irma's odyssey provides a sense of the diversity that made America strong. Readers will enjoy this deep historical as Pamela Schoenewaldt opens the window to a world When We Were Strangers coming together though from diverse Old Countries to start anew. Harriet Klausner
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Great historical story. Such a tenuous time yet one of growth in tjhe us history.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I can't believe how unlucky she was, but in the end her life is fulfilled. I like to hear the stories about coming to Ellis Island. I can't imagine going through that now. Life was so hard then. The birth of America is a thrilling story. It just goes to show you that people from all backgrounds can come together and live together and prosper.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
Wow...for $1.99 this was an excellent read. Enjoyed the author's writing style overall...well formed characters and timeline moved right along from start to finish. Would like to read more of author's writings. Would most definitely recommend this book.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
This book gave me a glimpse of what it may have been like for my own ancestors, who crossed the Atlantic to start new lives in America. Though they never got as far west as Irma, I am sure many if their struggles were similar. This was an excellent read which I could hardly put down! Irma was shy and innocent, yet adventurous and bold, made so by necessity and her experiences as she navigated the new places she now called home.
Anonymous More than 1 year ago
I could not put this book down! Very good attention to detail of the era-cannot wait for schoenewald's next novel!
MichelleSutton More than 1 year ago
When We Were Strangers is a compelling novel. I identified with how lost the main character, Irma, must have felt when she left her hometown to come to America. She suffered in a number of ways, and not knowing English for a period of time didn't help. While she was fortunate to have work, she was taken advantage of as so many women were in those days, especially immigrants. Her persistence, however, paid off and though she suffered other heartache and trauma, she came out in the end the kind of person that everyone loves and will miss. She was a hard worker and very respectful. She did what she had to do to survive, but she also thrived over time because she had a caring heart. She struggled with forgiveness, but given what she experienced that made sense to me. This novel was inspiring and just one realistic example of how someone could work hard and eventually prosper in America. In the era that this book was written there were many immigrants from all over the world all hoping for the same dream of a better life. Irma did end up with a better life, but in the end she lost some of her identity, though she tried to hold on to it. She was a strong heroine, but clearly flawed and three dimensional. I suffered along with her in a number of situations, but as life often does, even those painful incidents brought her to the one thing in her life that gave her the greatest sense of purpose. She found who she wanted to be, and I was inspired by that revelation. There are some situations in this story that are not for people who are easily upset, but they weren't overly graphic or anything like that. Just painful situations that too many women face. I won't give a spoiler here, so if you want to find out what I'm referring to, you'll have to read the book.
ReaderK8 More than 1 year ago
This book was breathtakingly good. Set during the 1880s, the historical detail throughout the book enchanted me--Irma's experiences on the ship to America, her search for work in a foreign country, the nature of her work as a seamstress, the limited opportunities that existed for young single women, Irma's volunteer work at a medical clinic--it was all so realistic and interesting. I also enjoyed the different places that Irma landed to try to make a life: Cleveland, Chicago, and San Francisco. The people that become important to her, though, made the story all the more touching. Irma was alone in America. She didn't know anyone but was able to make truly special friends who stuck with her through thick and thin. She may have left her family in Opi, but she had created a circle of friends that was just as close as family. I loved this book more than I can say. It is in turns beautiful, heartbreaking, hopeful, and meaningful. I could not help but love Irma for her humility and compassion for others, so that even with a large scar on her face, people were drawn to the loveliness that radiated from her very being. I am certain that this book will be high on my list of favorite books at the end of the year. I highly recommend it, and I think it would be a fantastic choice for book clubs as well. If you read a historical novel this year, I hope you pick up this one. It is wonderful.
Anonymous 7 months ago
Although well written, I found this book a downer. Poor little girl, within the first third of the book she's molested by her father, robbed on the ship and her face scarred, mugged of everything on the streets of America and exploited in a horrible sweat shop. Then she is brutally raped. What the heck author? You are putting too many stones in my pack to keep reading. Much more of this stuff and I'll put stones in my pockets (as did a worker in the sweat shop) and walk into the lake too. I really liked Irma, and so wished her well but my heart hurts too much to keep on to see what happens next. To hell with this stuff!!!
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I enjoyed this book because of the setting in Italy and USA. It is about immigrants who come to America because of various reasons, jobs, family, survival. Would highly recommend this book to all first generations in the USA
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