When We Were Strangers

( 127 )

Overview

"If you leave Opi, you'll die with strangers," Irma Vitale's mother always warned. Even after her beloved mother's passing, 20-year-old Irma longs to stay in her Abruzzo mountain village, plying her needle. But too poor and plain to marry and subject to growing danger in her own home, she risks rough passage to America and workhouse servitude to achieve her dream of making dresses for gentlewomen.

In the raw immigrant quarters and with the help of an entrepreneurial Irish serving girl, ribbon-decked Polish ragman...

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Overview

"If you leave Opi, you'll die with strangers," Irma Vitale's mother always warned. Even after her beloved mother's passing, 20-year-old Irma longs to stay in her Abruzzo mountain village, plying her needle. But too poor and plain to marry and subject to growing danger in her own home, she risks rough passage to America and workhouse servitude to achieve her dream of making dresses for gentlewomen.

In the raw immigrant quarters and with the help of an entrepreneurial Irish serving girl, ribbon-decked Polish ragman and austere Alsatian dressmaker, Irma begins to stitch together a new life…until her peace and self are shattered in the charred remains of the Great Chicago Fire. Enduring a painful recovery, Irma reaches deep within to find that she has even more to offer the world than her remarkable ability with a needle and thread.

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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.)
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Product Details

  • ISBN-13: 9780062003997
  • Publisher: HarperCollins Publishers
  • Publication date: 1/25/2011
  • Pages: 336
  • Sales rank: 290,084
  • Product dimensions: 5.30 (w) x 7.90 (h) x 0.90 (d)

Meet the Author

Pamela Schoenewaldt lived for ten years in a small town outside Naples, Italy. Her short stories have appeared in literary magazines in England, France, Italy, and the United States. She now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee, with her husband, Maurizio Conti, a physicist, and Jesse, their dog.

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Reading Group Guide

Questions for Discussion

1. Irma's practical skills and world knowledge seem so limited, even compared to those of her brother Carlo. What abilities and traits help her navigate the difficult passages from Opi to Naples and then west?

2. Irma's mother devoutly believes that "If you leave Opi, you will die with strangers." How does this assertion shape Irma's experience and how does she ultimately refine it in a way that allows her to move forward in her journey? How does this family assertion compare to others you may have encountered?

3. Opi, real and remembered, is a powerful force for Irma's self-image and world-view. How does her conception of Opi change through the novel?

4. Unlike many fictional heroines and perhaps many young women, Irma initially has little interest in a romantic union. Why not and what must change for her to have a satisfying intimate relationship?

5. At various times in her journey, Irma makes choices which she herself feels are at odds with the Irma Vitale that she "really is." Is she accurate in this assessment?

6. Irma Vitale is surrounded by immigrants as she makes her passage west. What various ways of relating to "the Old Country" are represented by these other immigrants, her "fellow strangers"?

7. Sofia gives Irma the option to leave Jake and Daisy's flat. Yet Irma stays. How does this choice reflect her course since first encountering Jake?

8. Irma's profession evolves from needle worker to dressmaker and finally surgeon. What inner changes parallel this evolution?

9. Today, as in Irma's time, many people live far from their birthplace for a variety of reasons. What pressures, challenges and supports seem universal about her experience?

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Customer Reviews

Average Rating 4
( 127 )
Rating Distribution

5 Star

(63)

4 Star

(37)

3 Star

(18)

2 Star

(6)

1 Star

(3)

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 127 Customer Reviews
  • Posted February 20, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    A wonderful immigration tale

    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!

    28 out of 34 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted June 15, 2011

    Wonderful story, engaging characters, strong emotions

    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.

    16 out of 16 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 3, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Our Journey In Life Begins With Taking That First Step!

    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!

    12 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 21, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Where we came from makes us who we are and what we become.

    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.

    10 out of 14 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted February 3, 2011

    Impressive debut novel

    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.

    9 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 21, 2011

    5 Stars for When We Were Strangers

    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.

    7 out of 7 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 1, 2012

    Exhausting in it's brilliance!

    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.

    6 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted January 14, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Readers will enjoy this deep historical

    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

    6 out of 9 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted March 22, 2012

    I Also Recommend:

    Another of my “must reads” is WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS

    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.

    5 out of 6 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted February 26, 2011

    more from this reviewer

    Book Club loved it!

    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!

    5 out of 5 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 8, 2013

    excellent story. This is a book you can enjoy. Well writen.

    Great historical story. Such a tenuous time yet one of growth in tjhe us history.

    2 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 6, 2013

    Good book for a book club

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Posted September 6, 2013

    Highly Recommend

    WOW, what a look into the lives of those who came before us. As one who lived through the women's lib movement I was still amazed at what women in the 1800's had to go through to survive and thrive. A great read for anyone interested in history, women's lives and the immigrant influx in a rapidly changing and merging society.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 2, 2013

    Very good

    The hard road our ancestors traveled. Enjoyable.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 2, 2013

    Beautiful writing

    Wonderful book. The prose borders on poetic in many places. Cant wait for more books by this author.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2013

    Good rrad Good read.

    Entertaining

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted September 1, 2013

    Great read

    Very interesting story about a young woman's journey as she immigrates to the U.S. from Italy and begins a new life.

    1 out of 2 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 27, 2013

    Great story

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted August 12, 2013

    A taste of our pasts

    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.

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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  • Anonymous

    Posted January 5, 2012

    Great read

    I could not put this book down! Very good attention to detail of the era-cannot wait for schoenewald's next novel!

    1 out of 1 people found this review helpful.

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See All Sort by: Showing 1 – 20 of 127 Customer Reviews

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