When We Were Strangers

Written by Pamela Schoenewaldt
Review by Jessica Brockmole

When Irma Vitale leaves her Italian mountain village with her sewing box and a dream to become a dressmaker in the late 19th century, she never doubts it will come true. America is the land of opportunity, everyone says. But she’s greeted with prejudice, poverty and the violence of the streets. Irma struggles in a sweatshop while searching for the brother who came before her. Unable to find him, she stitches together a surrogate family from the immigrants she meets in Chicago – an Irish maid, an Alsatian dressmaker, a Polish ragman – and slowly achieves her dream, making dresses for the elite of the city. When an act of brutality one night threatens to unravel all that Irma has worked for, an Italian midwife teaches her that the same patient hands which sew for the wealthy can also doctor the poor in the immigrant tenements. With the midwife’s encouragement, Irma applies to a nursing school in San Francisco. It would mean leaving her Chicago “family,” but it would also mean pursuing a new dream. In America, the opportunities aren’t always what you expect.

This book is beautifully wrought and rich in detail. I had trouble putting it down. The author lived for many years in Italy, and her love of the country and its people are evident. Small sensations that remind Irma of home – an accent, the tang of crusty bread, the sunset wreathing the mountains – are written with a sure hand. Irma’s character is very real, full of doubt, fear, and finally hesitant satisfaction as she finds her place in the world. This novel is an excellent slice of the immigrant life, from decision to journey, settlement to achievement. Highly recommended.