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When We Were Strangers

3.78  ·  Rating Details  ·  3,945 Ratings  ·  456 Reviews
"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
Paperback, 328 pages
Published January 25th 2011 by William Morrow Paperbacks / Harper Collins (first published 2011)
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(showing 1-30 of 3,000)
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Feb 12, 2013 Dem rated it liked it
3.5 Stars

When we were Strangers is an inspiring story of strength, determination and courage of a young Italian Woman who travels across the world in 1880s to better her life.

Pamela Schoenewaldt’s debut novel tells the story of the lonely and eventful journey of Irma, a young Italian woman possessed of a quiet inner strength as she ventures alone into a wide, unknown world of the 1880s America. Irma begins her life in the remote Italian mountain village of Opi. Her ancestors found only misfortu
Apr 26, 2012 Agatha rated it it was ok
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Joy H.
Added 1/30/12.
Edit added 2/1/12 - My comment at my group:
I'm currently reading a good book: When We Were Strangers by Pamela Schoenewaldt. It's a selection of our Sr Cit book club and is VERY interesting, almost compelling. It's about a young Italian girl who emigrates to America years ago from a small town in Italy. The descriptions of her experiences are so well-written, touching and informative as well.

Edit added 2/11/12:
I enjo
Aug 22, 2013 Julie rated it it was amazing
Loved this book! The way Irma's homeland is within her heart and soul really spoke to me. As someone who has spent the better part of two years being incredibly homesick, I could really relate to Irma's longing for home, and yet pushing on, knowing she was making a better life for herself. I have been living this same thing, although I have access to all of the modern conveniences that allow me to keep in daily contact with those I left behind. I would have never been strong enough to travel so ...more
Jul 08, 2015 Mj rated it really liked it
When We Were Strangers is the first novel debut written by Pamela Schoenewaldt; however, I think much more experienced authors would take pride had they written it themselves.

It is an historical fiction filled with wonderful characters throughout. Schoenewaldt makes them come alive. None are one dimensional. Each has strengths, flaws and humanness and feels very authentic. They became friends whose company I enjoyed and were the kind of people I like to emulate. The story is particularly rich wi
Oct 23, 2012 Marcy rated it it was amazing
"Even an uprooted tree could find a scoop of welcoming earth." Irma was from a small village in Italy. After her bereaved father came home drunk, he tried to make a pass at his daughter. Irma knew she did not have a safe place to live in her village any more, particularly with the old-fashioned mores of her village. She decided to go to America, the land of opportunity, where her brother had gone before her. Irma became the classic immigrant "sewer" and "embroiderer" in Cleveland. There were dan ...more
Lydia Presley
Jan 24, 2011 Lydia Presley rated it it was amazing
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
Mar 20, 2011 Jan rated it it was amazing
Whenever snow or rain storms keep me indoors, my favorite thing to do is snuggle up in front of the fire place with a good book. Yesterday, I picked up When We Were Strangers by Pamela Schoenewaldt, and was literally transported to the 1880’s. This beautifully written and remarkable story about a young Italian girl’s journey from her village in Opi, Italy to America, was both riveting and memorable. Schoenewaldt’s exquisite prose carves out a heartfelt tale about determination and the will to su ...more
Feb 20, 2012 MrsF rated it did not like it
Ergh, just finished. In short summation, this was disingenuous, overtly derivative, horribly cliched, laughable, and all round just b-grade. Uh, so yeah, I wasn't a fan!?!! The idea of the story piqued my interest, and it was certainly an easy read which got me into it - but that ease soon became a case of 'let's state the bleeding obvious'. I prefer an author who presumes at least a hint of intelligence in her reader, sheesh!

The inconsistent pace of the story really bothered me. There were tim
Aug 23, 2013 Patricia rated it it was ok
It was ok, just ok. Seems like I've read a lot of immigrant stories (1800s) lately. And while I'm always amazed at the grit and courage of immigrants to this new country, this book didn't keep me interested. I did finish it, but found it almost predictable toward the end.

Irma, our heroine, comes penniless, meets her share of cruel people and is the victim of several scams and crimes. She uses her skill as a seamstress to earn her way, and then through a series of events (I won't give away the pl
Talia Carner
Apr 13, 2015 Talia Carner rated it really liked it
Some mothers advice should be ignored, because they come out of the mothers' own limited knowledge and experience.

One such warning was Irma's mother's warning on her deathbed that Irma should "not die among strangers." But living in the conditions she is subject to in the small Italian village during famine, in small quarters with her father who became sexually interested in his sixteen-year old daughter, turned to be intolerable. Irma sets out to follow--and find--her brother who had left for
Jan 21, 2014 Lori rated it really liked it
I admire how the author moved Irma through events rapidly and seamlessly. And I cared about Irma very much. However, so many bad things happened to her in the beginning and middle sections, I was beginning to panic anytime she left the boarding house. The poor girl couldn't even go for a walk! This was a little too traumatic for me, but I still enjoyed the story and appreciated the un-cliche ending. Two thumbs up to the character of Molly!
Kimberly Ann
Jun 15, 2012 Kimberly Ann rated it it was ok
Can that many bad things happen to one person? I did feel like there was a good theme of forgiveness/atonement? I don't know if I have that right but it was ok.
Aug 21, 2011 Kathy rated it it was amazing
Highly recommended. Beautifully written historical novel about an Italian immigrant woman who comes to America alone and makes her own future through experiences in Cleveland, then Chicago, and finally San Francisco.

This author has written short stories. This novel, her first, grew out of a short story about the main character. The writing is just wonderful! (A quote on the front cover of the paperback from another author reads: "I long for this kind of lovely prose. A cut above.") Here is a br
Jul 15, 2014 Marcie rated it it was amazing
Quite simply, I loved this book! It's the story of a young woman who makes the difficult decision to immigrate to America on her own, then works hard to find her place in her new country. Irma is a strong woman to face all the challenges that she encounters and she's full of hope for a better future, yet she is also shockingly naive about the dangers she faces. Her voice is clear and simple and very real, and I appreciated how she struggled with some terrible moral decisions. My biggest complain ...more
Jul 21, 2014 Rina rated it it was amazing
this story of an immigrant girl in the late 1870s-80s is historical fiction and a glorious example of same. I was so involved in the story I barely realized the historical events occurring. Irma grabs you and takes you with her on an exciting journey. Don't know how I would have fared had I had to come to this country and make a life for myself. Very poignant and sweet, but there's not so sweet also. I am becoming a fan of Pamela Schoenwaldt and recommend her writing.
Nov 05, 2013 Gretchen rated it liked it
Shelves: read-2013
An enjoyable novel about the immigrant experience in the 1880's. Irma's mother has cautioned her to not leave her small village lest she die alone among strangers. So, when fate intervenes and she ends up emigrating to America, how will she respond?

I loved Irma's character, and I enjoyed seeing her grow. There were some very strong sections of the novel - particularly those that show Irma interacting with other immigrants.

And yet, I couldn't love this book. There were too many cases of a soluti
Dec 09, 2014 Mom2nine rated it it was ok
The book earns the two stars for the first half of the story. Author's attention to details, such as the steerage section of the ship would be dark, brought me into her story. I find it difficult to believe that a working class girl could not go anywhere without being mugged or molested. Irma was smart enough to find her way over the ocean and to support herself, but was always unsafe when she stepped foot outside. Possibly the author assumes that men are animals, as even Irma's father could not ...more
Apr 07, 2015 Lisa rated it really liked it
This book is beautifully written, and sheds light on what it would be like to be a lone immigrant traveling to America in the late 1800s/early 1900s. It also traces the development of a life from nothing to a rich community, and triumph over hardship. I did feel that especially in the first 2/3, the book was too hard on men, but this may just be a reflection of the main character's own fear of men, an attitude that slowly and eventually changes. There is also a description of an abortion, which ...more
Oct 21, 2013 Aura rated it it was amazing
I wish I could give this book 6 stars. Irma is a character that will live forever in me. She left Opi, a small mountain Italian town to America, alone in hopes of finding her brother. Along the way mostly good men helped her but a few tried to hurt her. Her journey to Naples, across the Atlantic, to Cleveland, Chicago and San Francisco is a spiritual journey to find goodness and purpose. This book kept me reading late into the night because Irma is us, everywomen, scarred but true, afraid, coura ...more
Jul 22, 2015 April rated it really liked it

I enjoyed When We Were Strangers. It's been awhile since I've read any historical novels regarding immigration to the States in the late 1800s, and compared to other books that I have read, this was refreshing, since it dealt with a young woman from a small town in Italy. (In the past, the majority of historical immigration books I've read have dealt with the Irish and the Potato Famine, which -- although an important part of history -- is also an overdone subject for novels.)

Yes, some of the
Jan 26, 2014 Phoebe rated it liked it
In this story, Irma Vitale, immigrates to America for the chance of a better life. Her life in the small village of Opi has nothing for her; no husband prospects, her father is a drunk, her aunt is blind, her mother died and her brother left to Cleveland. So begins her journey. While traveling to America, Irma is forced to face many fears as she encounters obstacles that stand in her way. Struggles that all immigrants face: learning English, finding work, finding people to call friends, being fa ...more
Feb 12, 2014 Jamie rated it it was amazing
Probably a 4.5 if I could rate it such. I am not a huge Historical Fiction reader, primarily because I don't like it when it is done poorly and too often it is done poorly. That was certainly not the case here. Pamela Schoenewaldt does an amazing job of inserting historical facts and nuances into her novel. When We Were Strangers spans the 1860's/1870's and follows the life of the main character Irma from Italy to America (through New York, Cleveland, Chicago and San Fransisco). I really had to ...more
Edward Sullivan
Feb 03, 2011 Edward Sullivan rated it really liked it
Shelves: adult-fiction
Excellent hsitorical ficition about a young woman's immigration journey from a small village in Italy to Chicago in the late 1800s. Vivid sense of time and place, memorable charcaters, and compelling story.
Mar 28, 2015 Kathy rated it liked it
This is the story of Irma, a young woman from Italy who was too poor and plain to be married off in the small village where she lived. Finding danger in her own home, she makes the perilous journey from Italy to America by boat in search of a better life. She wants to catch up with her brother, who has already made the journey from their small village, Opi, to Cleveland.
Once in Cleveland, without a husband or money, she is forced into service in a sewing piecework shop. Irma’s impressive sewing
May 01, 2011 Kasia rated it liked it
Easy read, well researched historical novel, nice prose depicting the era. The characters are one dimensional and the plot is not convincing. Good book for a long flight over the Atlantic .....
"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-dec
Trisha Smith
Born and raised in a remote mountain village, 20-year-old Irma struggles with the lose of her mother and her life at home. Too plain and poor to marry, she is left with no other option that to immigrate to America and work as a dress-maker. Through Irma's journey, she meets people just like her struggling to make it in their new home. By chance, she learns that her gift with needlework will lead her on another path - volunteering at a free-clinic and eventually traveling to San Francisco to purs ...more
Oct 01, 2011 Shari rated it liked it
A little too contrived...EVERYTHING happens to her!!
Jul 24, 2013 Diane rated it liked it
Engaging historical fiction.
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Reading with Criticism Held in your Mind 1 6 May 18, 2014 01:13AM  
Bookworm Bitches : March 2012: When We Were Strangers 48 181 Apr 02, 2012 03:44PM  
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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. Her play, “Espresso con mia madre” (Espresso with my mother) was performed at Teatro Cilea in Naples. She taught writing for the University of Maryland, European Division and the University of Tennessee and now lives i ...more
More about Pamela Schoenewaldt...

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