Reviewed by Mirella Sichirollo Patzer
If you love a good tale interwoven with both heart-break and dreams, loss and success, you will truly enjoy When We Were Strangers by Pamela Schoenewaldt.
Irma Vitale is a poverty-stricken young woman of marriageable age who lives in the small village of Opi nestled in the Abruzzi mountains of Italy. Her brother and closest friend departs for America, hopeful to escape poverty. He tells her he is going to Cleveland and departs soon afterwards. As more and more youths from Opi and neighbouring villages depart for America, Irma’s chances at making a good marriage dwindle. Her aging aunt encourages her to go to America, find her brother, and make a better life for herself. And so, with a secret stash of money passed down from mothers to daughters in the family, Irma sets out and boards a ship to America. The reader is then swept into a heart-wrenching and intriguing tale depicting the hardships of immigrants from the crossing to the desperation and struggles they face the moment they take their first steps into the new world.
I could not help but be touched by this story - my own mother and aunts also immigrated alone to the new world from their own small town in the Abruzzi region of Italy for the same reasons and alone, like Irma. I became wholly immersed in this credible tale of poor Irma, finding parallels with the stories my relatives repeated to me of their own shocking experiences. Every detail of this novel felt authentic – from Italian village life, to the struggles with finding work, to being cheated, and finding a friend or two along the way to help.
It is an inspiring tale of strength, determination, and courage, paying homage to the many women who bravely faced the pain of loss of hearth and kin to scrape out a new life in a land brimming with hope. Vivid detail, heart-felt emotion, and highly developed characters make this novel stand out, lending believability and vividness. I loved this novel and it is most definitely one of my all-time favourite books of all time. I highly recommend it!