When We Were Strangers by Pamela Schoenewaldt

It is the late 19th century and Irma Vitale of the age of 16 sits with her dieing mother.  Her mother warns Irma never to leave their mountain village as doing so will doom her to die among strangers.  Fast forward a few years and Irma finds she must go against her mother’s last wishes  to avoid the advances of her father.  Taking only her a small dowry and the sewing skills she has learned, she boards a boat crossing the ocean to a world that is foreign to her.  Irma dreams that her sewing will take to places where she will be able to be a seamstress and make beautiful dresses with her skills.  Some will take advantage of this immigrant girl, while others will become what true friendship is all about as Irma learns to pick herself up and move forward as she travels parts of the United States.

The Immigrants Sculptor Luis Sanguino (b. 1934) celebrates the diversity of New York City and the struggle of immigrants in this heroic-sized bronze figural group. The piece was donated by Samuel Rudin (1896–1975), who commissioned the sculpture in the early 1970s, intending it to be installed near Castle Clinton as a memorial to his parents, who, as it is noted on the plinth, emigrated to the United States in the late-19th century. Although Rudin died in 1975, Rudin’s family took up the campaign to install the sculpture at the park, and it eventually was dedicated on May 4, 1983.

This is just the kind of book I get giddy about reviewing.  When a story  pulls you in with its breathtaking descriptions of the time, the place, the people, the food…

I thought about how hard is it is for even people like myself in the US to move away from our roots to another state, and as I think about that I can not even imagine what it would have felt like for Irma, a plain, poor girl, from a small village to have the courage to take up her things and move to a world she did not know anything about.

Irma’s story was a mix of emotions and I followed her all the way through them all.  As she traveled I was delighted to read about the interesting characters she met, Lula, the African American cook was so well described that I felt I would know her if I passed her on the street, then Molly an Irish maid and Sofia an Italian nurse left colorful descriptions in my mind of how different these women’s backgrounds all were.

This is not a sweet easy fluffy read.  Irma’s travels are sprinkled with hard ships and hard decisions from the time she is on the boat to her new life as she travels from Cleavland, to Chicago, and then finally to San Francisco.  There is even quite a graphic scene of violence that made me catch my breath.  While fiction, I can imagine that what is described in this book is not too far from what some of the immigrants did endure in search of a better life.  These thoughts, break my heart.

A book I do not think I can stress enough how much I recommend.  A literary treat that will leave you feeling satisfied. This book would make for a fantastic book club discussion and you can bet that this will be the title I bring to our next Bookies meeting as my suggestion for our April read.

Amazon Rating

I have updated the WHERE Are You reading Map to include When We Were Strangers (where oh where to put the map peg!)

I read this book as part of the TLC Book Tours

26 thoughts on “When We Were Strangers by Pamela Schoenewaldt

  1. This book sounds beautiful! I am SO excited to read it. The cover alone sold me (now I have to decide do I want the ebook, or a physical paper book so I can stare at that beautiful cover all day!)

  2. I love stories of immigrants, especially those in earlier times. These tales remind me of my maternal grandmother, who came to the US from Sweden at the age of twenty…alone. And it was around the turn of the (twentieth) century.

  3. Fantastic review! I’ve got this on my TBR list and I look forward to reading it. It sounds so moving.

    Have you read Girl in Translation? It is also an immigrant story but set in modern times.

  4. As it happens, I’ve been doing geneology lately and I’m particularly interested in my husband’s grandfather, a mining engineer, who came here from So. Africa. What an enormous change for him! Anyway, I’d love to read this book. I love well drawn characters.

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