When We Were Strangers by Pamela Schoenewaldt

Irma Vitali sees no real future for herself in the minuscule mountain town where her father lives. Sheep and sewing, marriage or the convent, and ‘hungry years’ coming all too often…only marriage is not really an option, as there are only five eligible men in her village–two are already affianced, two are cognitively impaired brothers incapable of supporting themselves alone and the fifth is violent. Her brother has already gone to America, they think; he left the village one night, saying he was going to work his way to Cleveland on tramp steamers out of Naples. Realizing that her niece too has her heart set on America, Irma’s ‘zia’ hands over what gold the family had kept, her father gives Irma her dowry, and the girl sets off for America.

Steerage is cramped, pungent and generally about as unpleasant as might be expected. Irma makes her way to Cleveland, and begins to search for her brother, but no luck; a scout of sorts on the lookout for immigrants in need of work arranges work for her in a dressmaking sweatshop just as her money runs out. (This also is about as miserable as one might expect, though not so bad as the factories elsewhere.) With no English and little in the way of salable skills, her first few months in the United States are about what you’d expect: a maelstrom of incomprehensible language, customs and even fruit—Irma’s first encounter with a banana provides considerable amusement at the expense of the greenhorn.

After several months in Cleveland, Irma realizes that her brother is not there, and determines to leave for Chicago; though her first attempt is thwarted by a mugging, she makes it to the White City, and, through a fortuitous encounter with a society matron whose dress became badly ripped, Irma finds employment in a boutique dressmaker’s shop. Again, this proves fulfilling for a few months, but Irma is raped by a lowlife posing as a police officer. The aftermath, physical and psychological, is as one might expect: she is not only victim to what we would now call PTSD but finds herself pregnant—what to do, if one cannot have the child much less keep it, is difficult even today, but in the 1880s, near-disaster. Irma has the good fortune to find a skilled abortionist, and even better fortune to realize that her calling lies in helping the poor through providing medical care. She apprentices herself to the doctor who helped her, and after the doctor’s death, goes out to San Francisco where there is a nursing school. Here she finds not only a calling, but friendship and a life partner.

I know this sounds as if I’m damning this with faint praise, but When We Were Strangers better than I thought I would, based on the first few pages. Overall, it strikes me as a modern woman’s tale of what she thinks it might have been like for an immigrant from Italy; that said, it’s an engaging tale, and a sympathetic one. I’m not sure how accurate it might be in terms of the cross-cultural ecumenical support between women, though my romantic heart hopes that they would have been; does anyone know?

I’m always wary/mocking of books which include book discussion questions at the end; that’s always struck me as presumptuous—how can the author and the publisher possibly presume to know how readers will use the book? In this case, the accompanying explanation of how the author came to write the novel was an interesting expansion of the book itself, though not surprising. On the plus side, though it has little to do with this book, if the author’s essay gets any of the readers to go quiz their older relatives about genealogy, the novel will have done it’s work, as far as I’m concerned. Stories from your tantes and nonis, bubbes and opas, can be an invaluable aid to research. Trust me on this.


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