Tuesday, February 1, 2011

When We Were Strangers

When We Were Strangers: A Novel
“Don’t die with strangers,” Irma Vitale’s mother tells her before she dies. But circumstances propel Irma out of her home in the tiny mountain village of Opi, located near Naples, and across the ocean to America. It’s the 1880s, and Irma joins a flood of other immigrants looking for a better life. Resting her hopes on her needlework skills, she stops first in Cleveland, where she ends up making collars in a sweatshop. Next stop is Chicago, where she is hired as a dressmaker by Madame Helene. Irma also meets Signora D’Angelo, who runs a clinic, and this meeting helps send her west on the next part of her journey, in pursuit of a new dream. This is a busy book, and at times Irma’s accumulation of experiences borders on “The Perils of Pauline.” But Schoenewaldt (who lived in Naples for several years) is a good storyteller, and this, plus her attention to physical details, helps make the novel one that readers who like immigrant sagas should enjoy. --Mary Ellen Quinn

My Take:  This is another difficult review to write.  Irma's story, itself, is not particularly new.  Italian immigrant in dying mountain village leaves for a better life in America, speaking not a word of English, creating a story to get her through customs.  She is poorly educated and poorly skilled - sewing being the only skill she possessed.  

Irma meets a copper salesman and he provides transportation to Naples.  He is a kind man who also picks up an orphan in a Typhus ridden village to deliver her to her aunt and uncle.  They stay with his sister for one night and continue on, drop off the child and Irma buys her steerage ticket. She rides out a storm in third class, gets in a fight, her face is scarred but she makes friends.  Exits ship, embarks on train to Cleveland, Ohio.  Works in sweat shop for pittance but she's grateful for a job and so it continues while she runs into trouble here and there, embarks on new adventures where she is, once again, a stranger, and makes herself at home in Chicago and again in San Francisco.

There are a couple of aspects that sets this book apart from other immigrant books.  The first and most important aspect is that the author wastes no time in establishing each character.  It is only at the end of the book that I discovered that the story began as a short story and told of Irma until she walked away from Opi, her tiny Italian village.  Writing a good short story is like learning how to use Twitter.  You have 140 characters to say what you need to say.  No words are wasted.  No characters are wasted.  Each person introduced is quickly established with a personality and all the needed characteristics to either be endearing or irritating and the author does not spend precious page space pontificating.

The second important aspect to this story is the imagery the author provides for the reader.  Using all the senses without feeling like I've returned to College Writing 101, I saw, smelled, felt, heard, and tasted Opi, the ship (not pleasant), the trains, Cleveland, Chicago, and San Francisco.

The third aspect is that the story told itself.  Irma's conclusions to leave Opi and strike out to America are logical based on the state of the village.  Finding a ride with a copper merchant is believable and I was relieved he was trustworthy.  Passing a town afflicted with a plague, picking up a child, meeting the merchant's sisters and neighbors, buying the ticket, staying in a boarding house, etc. are all logical.  People Irma meet on her journey are logical and not contrived.  That leg of the journey ends and they continue in their own directions.

If the book were made into a movie, I would not see it.  I would be bored.  It is the author's style that makes this book a work of art.  

Thanks to the lovely ladies at TLC Book Tour and publisher, I have 1 copy available for you.
No P.O. Boxes
Ends February 13th

Disclosure of Material Connection: I received this book free from TLC Book Tours. I was not required to write a positive review. The opinions I have expressed are my own. I am disclosing this in accordance with the Federal Trade Commission’s 16 CFR, Part 255: “Guides Concerning the Use of Endorsements and Testimonials in Advertising.”


heathertlc said...

I find it fascinating that you liked the book but don't think you'd like the movie - yet it makes complete sense based on your review.

Thanks for being a part of this tour!

CountessLaurie said...

I guess I missed this one, but I am having complete deja vu.


love. exciting and new. come aboard. we're expecting you.

hee hee... now you are singing it. again....