When We Were Strangers by Pamela Schoenewaldt is the powerful story of Irma Vitale, a young Italian woman who chooses to emigrate to America to escape a life of poverty in a small Italian mountain village. From the book jacket: "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 gentlewoman.
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."
I picked this book up at the city library. It had not been recommended to me by anyone, just one that caught my eye. What a lucky choice! Schoenewaldt's first novel draws you in right from the first page. The compelling story of this determined young woman is told with simple language and rich description. The character development is strong, the people in the book are as real as you and I. The author's sensory description is so very well done, she writes with great clarity and attention to historical detail. The immigrant's life of poverty and struggle was real and it is difficult to escape a personal attachment to Irma. I am not a Book Club member, but if I was, I would be recommending this book to my group. And you can be sure I'll be watching for another novel from Schoenewaldt....
"Surrender to what is. Let go of what was. Have faith in what will be." ~ Sonia Ricotti