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Wednesday, February 09, 2011

Italian Immigration Story a Fine First Novel

(Image from Indiebound)

Life in Opi is difficult even in the best of times. Nestled high in the mountains of Southern Italy, the tiny village offers little besides breathtaking vistas. Especially for a woman as poor and plain as 20-year-old Irma Vitale. When her brother emigrates to America, urging her to join him, Irma considers leaving, too. But her mother always warned her that people who leave Opi are destined to die with strangers, a horrifying thought for someone who's never been away from home. It takes a stunning betrayal to push her on the journey, but Irma finally flees her hometown, bound for Cleveland.

It's 1891, a time when the whole world seems to be flocking to the shores of America. Irma's heard enough stories to know that few return from this great journey across the North Atlantic. Some are robbed and beaten as they travel, others are buried at sea, and still more vanish into the vastness of America, completely forgetting to send money home to Italy. If Irma can just make it to Ohio, she knows she can make plenty of money sewing for wealthy ladies, enough to live on and send home to her family.

It doesn't take long for Irma to realize how naive she's been in her planning. Nothing - from her voyage across the sea in the cramped, smelly bowels of the Servia to her lonely arrival in New York City to her years of backbreaking sewing work in the land that was supposed to be full of grand possibility - goes the way she hoped it would. She learns much along the way about hope, about friendship, about heartache, about love. When the opportunity arises to return to Opi, it's time for Irma to decide: Should she return to her mountain home or risk fulfilling her mother's prophecy and dying among strangers?

When We Were Strangers, the first novel by playwright and short story author Pamela Schoenewaldt, is a sweeping saga written in lush, lovely prose. Even when Irma's experiences are brutal and her outlook bleak (which is often the case), Schoenewaldt's writing is tender, gentle. While the novel doesn't have much of a plot, what does happen keeps the tale moving enough that I never found myself growing bored. With rich period detail; colorful, realistic characters; and a brave, plucky heroine, When We Were Strangers is an admirable first novel. It didn't blow me away, but it definitely kept me reading. You better believe I'm looking forward to more from the talented Schoenewaldt.

(Readalikes: Reminded me of The King of Mulberry Street by Donna Jo Napoli and other stories about Italian immigrants)

Grade: B

If this were a movie, it would be rated: R for mild language (no F-bombs), violence and sexual content

To the FTC, with love: I received an ARC of When We Were Strangers from Harper Collins and TLC Book Tours, for whom this review was written. Thank you!


  1. I'm so glad you enjoyed this one! Italian immigrant stories have a special place in my heart since my great-grandparents came over to the US from Italy many years ago. I'm looking forward to picking this one up myself.

    Thanks for being a part of the tour!

  2. This is definitely one on my must get list - I am participating in the Immigration Stories Challenge and this one will fit right in - thanks!

  3. This was so good wasnt it? I read it this past week and I am still thinking about it.


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