From Publishers Weekly
Schoenewaldt's heartbreaking debut is the late 19th century immigrant coming-of-age story of poor, plain Irma Vitale. When Irma's mother 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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“Don’t die with strangers,” Irma Vitale’s mother tells her before she dies. But circumstances propel Irma out of her home in the tiny mountain village of Opi, located near Naples, and across the ocean to America. It’s the 1880s, and Irma joins a flood of other immigrants looking for a better life. Resting her hopes on her needlework skills, she stops first in Cleveland, where she ends up making collars in a sweatshop. Next stop is Chicago, where she is hired as a dressmaker by Madame Helene. Irma also meets Signora D’Angelo, who runs a clinic, and this meeting helps send her west on the next part of her journey, in pursuit of a new dream. This is a busy book, and at times Irma’s accumulation of experiences borders on “The Perils of Pauline.” But Schoenewaldt (who lived in Naples for several years) is a good storyteller, and this, plus her attention to physical details, helps make the novel one that readers who like immigrant sagas should enjoy. --Mary Ellen Quinn