Friday, February 25, 2011

Review: When We Were Strangers

Summary: "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. -- Harper

When I first read the description of WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS by Pamela Schoenewaldt, I had a pretty good idea that I might like this book. It seemed to embody so many of the things I love about historical fiction -- a strong female character, a coming-of-age story (of sorts), and an interesting setting. However, I had absolutely no idea how much I would adore this novel. The quality of this story and its overall effect on me even took me a bit by surprise.

I'm a little afraid that I'm going to sound over-the-top, but I thought WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS was wonderful! I loved the story, the characters and Ms. Schoenewaldt's writing style. Now it's true that I am drawn to stories about immigrants and especially ones from Italy; and I do love reading about the changes in America in the late 1800s. So WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS definitely had some things already in its favor, but it was the character development and the portrayal of immigrants' plights in our country that made this book extra-special to me.

I think one of the main keys to this book's appeal in my mind was the character of Irma. She truly is an incredible one and I can't get out her of my mind. (Isn't that always the sign of a special character?) I was deeply moved by her situation in Italy -- her mother was dead, her father was a mess, and there were no men left to marry in her small village; and I understood that she had no option but to head for America. Once she made the courageous decision to leave her family, her situation on the boat over was no less difficult. When she arrived in Cleveland (and later Chicago), she had to find a place to live and a job, and even learn a new language. She had to deal with prejudices against her just because she was an immigrant as well as huge feelings of loss and loneliness.

There is no doubt that Irma was one tough cookie. She found some friends and a great job in Chicago; and just when it appeared that things might be starting to work out for Irma, she was the victim of a horrific act of violence. And while I wouldn't have wished anything even close to this on my biggest enemy; in many ways, this act was a huge changing point for Irma. I felt as if the after effects of this "encounter" demonstrated that even bad things can bring something good to our lives. And I really loved that Irma was able to not only bounce back from this event, but become an even stronger woman as a result.

Not only did I love the story in WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS, but I appreciated how this novel made me feel. I mentioned that my heart broke over and over again for Irma (at times, I was even a little sick in my stomach); however, this novel also left me with so many wonderful thoughts. One message that I received loud and clear from WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS was about the beauty of human kindness. Based on Irma's story and her struggles, you might be surprised to hear that, but I loved that each time something awful happened to Irma, someone was there to help her. Often times, Irma had absolutely nothing -- no place to live, no job, no money, no friends, and really no where to turn; and it was the kindness of strangers and mere acquaintances that got her through. I found this novel to be such an uplifting story about how fellow man does come through when people are in need.

In addition, WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS gave me a deeper appreciation for my ancestors -- the ones who left their families and took the risk to come to America. Even though Irma was a fictional character, I kept thinking that elements of her story were probably true for many immigrants. Just imagine moving from a small town where everyone knew you to a big city where you knew no one. You could very well have had no family, no friends, no home, and no job; and it's likely that you didn't even speak the language. Personally, I would have been terrified and I'm not sure I could have done it. I'm just extremely thankful that my ancestors had the courage and foresight to come to a new country and make roots here.

Please consider WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS for a future book club discussion -- I'm almost begging you. I am pretty certain that everyone would appreciate this story, and as you can see, it's one that entertains and makes you think (and in the case of me, really feel!) There are so many things to talk about in this novel that you don't even need a readers guide, but here are the discussion questions

As if you couldn't tell, I highly recommend WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS! As far as I'm concerned, it's a must read for historical fiction fans and especially ones who appreciate stories about immigrants.

Thanks to the publisher for sending me a copy of this novel.


Icedream said...

I love historical fiction and I get excited about a book when I read a review that is as enthusiastic as yours. I've added this book to my wish list. :)

Beth F said...

Oh wow -- now I have to get to this sooner than later. I just more hours in the day.

Sandy Nawrot said...

This book totally appeals to me. I love the immigrant story, not only because of my ancestors, but because of my husband. I'm not sure I would have had the courage to leave my family and start a new life in another country. It just goes to show how horrible it must have been in their homeland, and their desire to improve their life. I'll keep this one in mind if I can get my hands on it.

bermudaonion said...

I tell you, I think the people who immigrated to this country back then had to be tough! Can you imagine leaving everything you know and love behind to start a new life someplace new like that. They couldn't communicate the way we can today!

I was supposed to get this from Library Thing, but it never came, so I'm hoping to go see the author on Sunday!

Karlie said...

This one sounds right up my alley :)

Anonymous said...

I'm planning on reading this next week in prep for Book Club Girl's interview with the author. I was excited before but now I'm really looking forward to it.

Rebecca Rasmussen said...

Oh how I love a good heartbreaker! This sounds wonderful :)

rhapsodyinbooks said...

I have heard such good things about this book. I too think it would take incredible courage to pick up and come to another country and not knowing the language!

Photomom said...

I actually am currently reading this book and loving it too! It reminds me of the book called "Her Mother's Hope" by Francine Rivers. I find myself thinking about Irma all the time and what a strong girl she is. It was fun to see your review. Thanks!

Anonymous said...

Great review Julie! I hope you (and others inspired by your review) can join us when we welcome Pamela to Book Club Girl on Air on March 7th!

Booksnyc said...

I am almost finished with this and I agree - it is excellent! I am hosting the Immigrant Story Challenge and this book is perfect for it. Irma's journey is representative of so many who have come to this country.

The author will be guest posting on my blog on Monday.

Katy said...

I adored this book! It is my favorite read of 2011 so far!