When We Were Strangers

Pamela Schoenewaldt, Author
Pamela Schoenewaldt, Harper, $14.99 trade paper (336p) ISBN 978-0-06-200399-7
Reviewed on: 10/11/2010
Release date: 01/01/2011
Ebook - 336 pages - 978-0-06-204179-1
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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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