When We Were Strangers

When We Were Strangers

3.82 (4,985 ratings by Goodreads)
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"The people as real as your own family, and the tale realistic enough to be any American's."
--Nancy E. Turner, author of These is My Words

A moving, powerful, and evocative debut novel, When We Were Strangers by Pamela Schoenewaldt heralds the arrival of superb new voice in American fiction. A tale rich in color, character, and vivid historical detail, it chronicles the tumultuous life journey of a young immigrant seamstress, as she travels from her isolated Italian mountain village through the dark corners of late nineteenth century America. A historical novel that readers of Geraldine Brooks, Nancy Turner, Frances de Pontes Peebles, and Debra Dean will most certainly cherish, When We Were Strangers will live in the mind and the heart long after its last page is turned.
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Product details

  • Paperback | 328 pages
  • 135 x 202 x 20mm | 258g
  • HarperCollins
  • New York, United States
  • English
  • Original
  • Illustrations, black and white
  • 0062003992
  • 9780062003997
  • 319,846

Back cover copy


"If you leave Opi, you'll die with strangers," Irma Vitale's mother always warned. Even after her beloved mother's passing, 20-year-old Irma longs to stay in her Abruzzo mountain village, plying her needle. But too poor and plain to marry and subject to growing danger in her own home, she risks rough passage to America and workhouse servitude to achieve her dream of making dresses for gentlewomen.

In the raw immigrant quarters and with the help of an entrepreneurial Irish serving girl, ribbon-decked Polish ragman and austere Alsatian dressmaker, Irma begins to stitch together a new life . . . until her peace and self are shattered in the charred remains of the Great Chicago Fire. Enduring a painful recovery, Irma reaches deep within to find that she has even more to offer the world than her remarkable ability with a needle and thread

Questions for Discussion

1. Irma's practical skills and world knowledge seem so limited, even compared to those of her brother Carlo. What abilities and traits help her navigate the difficult passages from Opi to Naples and then west?

2. Irma's mother devoutly believes that "If you leave Opi, you will die with strangers." How does this assertion shape Irma's experience and how does she ultimately refine it in a way that allows her to move forward in her journey? How does this family assertion compare to others you may have encountered?

3. Opi, real and remembered, is a powerful force for Irma's self-image and world-view. How does her conception of Opi change through the novel?

4. Unlike many fictional heroines and perhaps many young women, Irma initially has little interest in a romantic union. Why not and what must change for her to have a satisfying intimate relationship?

5. At various times in her journey, Irma makes choices which she herself feels are at odds with the Irma Vitale that she "really is." Is she accurate in this assessment?

6. Irma Vitale is surrounded by immigrants as she makes her passage west. What various ways of relating to "the Old Country" are represented by these other immigrants, her "fellow strangers"?

7. Sofia gives Irma the option to leave Jake and Daisy's flat. Yet Irma stays. How does this choice reflect her course since first encountering Jake?

8. Irma's profession evolves from needle worker to dressmaker and finally surgeon. What inner changes parallel this evolution?

9. Today, as in Irma's time, many people live far from their birthplace for a variety of reasons. What pressures, challenges and supports seem universal about her experience?

About the Author

Pamela Schoenewaldt lived for ten years in a small town outside Naples, Italy. Her short stories have appeared in literary magazines in England, France, Italy and the United States. She taught writing for the University of Maryland, European Division and the University of Tennessee and now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee with her husband, Maurizio Conti, a medical physicist, and their dog Jesse, a philosopher.
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Rating details

4,985 ratings
3.82 out of 5 stars
5 22% (1,093)
4 45% (2,247)
3 27% (1,353)
2 5% (239)
1 1% (53)

Our customer reviews

Before I get started, I just wanted to point out that this is my favorite book of 2011 so far. What is sure to follow is a gushing fangirl review that cannot recommend this book enough and will probably not do the beauty of this book justice. But I will try. WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS transports the reader from the high and rural hills of Irma Vitale's family home in Opi, Italy, through her long journey to America and opportunity. She is a small town girl, going out into a world bigger than she has ever imagined, with only her sewing skills and the kindness of strangers to help her succeed. She goes alone to America (a terrifying prospect for a young person leaving home for the first time who has never been further than the next town over), and while she learns that some strangers can be dangerous, she also realizes that others can become your best and most trustworthy friends. This is a beautiful immigrant story. Set during the 1880s, the historical detail throughout the book enchanted me--Irma's experiences on the ship to America, her search for work in a foreign country, the nature of her work as a seamstress, the limited opportunities that existed for young single women, Irma's volunteer work at a medical clinic--it was all so realistic and interesting. I also enjoyed the different places that Irma landed to try to make a life: Cleveland, Chicago, and San Francisco. The people that become important to her, though, made the story all the more touching. Irma was alone in America. She didn't know anyone but was able to make truly special friends who stuck with her through thick and thin. She may have left her family in Opi, but she had created a circle of friends that was just as close as family. I loved this book more than I can say. It is in turns beautiful, heartbreaking, hopeful, and meaningful. I could not help but love Irma for her humility and compassion for others, so that even with a large scar on her face, people were drawn to the loveliness that radiated from her very being. I am certain that this book will be high on my list of favorite books at the end of the year. I highly recommend it, and I think it would be a fantastic choice for book clubs as well. If you read a historical novel this year, I hope you pick up this one. It is wonderful. I can't wait to go buy a finished copy to reside on my keeper shelf. (Reader's Advisory: Sensitive readers might want to know that this story depicts both a rape and an abortion. It's realistic, but it might be hard for some readers to handle.) (Disclosure: I received a bound galley of this book for review as part of a TLC Book Tour)show more
by Katy F.
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.show more
by Lydia Presley
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