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When We Were Strangers: A Novel Paperback – January 25, 2011

4.4 out of 5 stars 320 customer reviews

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Editorial Reviews

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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From Booklist

“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
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Product Details

  • Paperback: 328 pages
  • Publisher: HarperCollins; Original edition (January 25, 2011)
  • Language: English
  • ISBN-10: 0062003992
  • ISBN-13: 978-0062003997
  • Product Dimensions: 5.3 x 0.8 x 8 inches
  • Shipping Weight: 1 pounds (View shipping rates and policies)
  • Average Customer Review: 4.4 out of 5 stars  See all reviews (320 customer reviews)
  • Amazon Best Sellers Rank: #289,211 in Books (See Top 100 in Books)

Customer Reviews

Top Customer Reviews

By E. Weiss on February 2, 2011
Format: Paperback Verified Purchase
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 Schoenewaldt'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.
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Format: Paperback
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.
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Format: Paperback
When We Were Strangers blew me away.

I mean, it's about time I read a b0ok in 2011 that gripped me as much as this book did and honestly, the binding I got for the Advanced Copy was rough to read, the words were half-faded and still, I didn't mind at all. Not a single bit. Because the story was that powerful.

Irma is a woman with strength, character, and resolve, yet also I found in her innocence, fear, and a sense of loneliness. This character in a story exhibited every trait that I would strive to have when finding myself faced with the challenges she faced. This is an immigration story that, though told on a nearly day-by-day, common occurrences basis, was filled with adventure, longing, hope and more.

Pamela Schoenewaldt writes so beautifully about Italy, about the culture, the food, the scenery. She describes with a brush of truth what life would have been like for a plain girl such as Irma. Without emotion to cloud the story (other than Irma's own emotion), I followed the ups and downs of every event with my heart in my throat. Honestly, this would make for a fantastic book club discussion book and I intend to write it down on my list.

Fantastic, powerful novel and I'm so thankful to TLC Tours for providing me with the opportunity to read it.
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The reviews that preceded this one said just about everything that one can say about "When We Were Strangers" by Pamela Schoenewaldt both in terms of the core plot of the novel and the remarkable skill, grace, and insight Ms. Schoenewaldt displays in telling Irma's story. I only want to underscore the powerful character development that flows from the first page to last. I doubt anyone who reads the novel with care will escape a strong personal attachment to Irma Vitale. You weep when she struggles and falls. You cheer when she finally gets a break. You wait with growing anxiety as she strikes out in totally unforeseen directions. And you exhale, slowly, with feeling, when her transformation into an American woman who is loved and accepted finally comes to pass. But Irma is not the only person you come to know in deeply personal terms. Just about anyone who has more than a passing relationship with Irma--both for good or ill--becomes known to you, often in intimate ways. You are not likely to forget any of these characters easily or soon. It is a book to cherish. You'll see.
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