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When We Were Strangers

3.83  ·  Rating details ·  5,301 ratings  ·  540 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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Average rating 3.83  · 
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 ·  5,301 ratings  ·  540 reviews

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Feb 07, 2013 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
Apr 24, 2012 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:
Lydia Presley
Jan 24, 2011 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
Aug 23, 2013 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
Aug 22, 2013 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
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
Marcy prager
Oct 23, 2012 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 ...more
Mar 20, 2011 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 ...more
Dec 09, 2014 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
Kimberly Ann
Jun 12, 2012 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.
Apr 30, 2018 rated it really liked it
I enjoyed this book as I followed Irma from Italy to Cleveland to Chicago to San Francisco. Her trials were real but so we're her dreams. An enjoyable read.
Feb 15, 2012 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
Jul 12, 2017 rated it really liked it  ·  review of another edition
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Jan 21, 2014 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!
Oct 01, 2011 rated it liked it
A little too contrived...EVERYTHING happens to her!!
Jolyse Barnett
Jun 30, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I read When We Were Strangers a few weeks ago, and I can't stop telling all my gfs about what a compelling read it was. I'm a huge American history buff, but this was a fresh take on the immigrant experience from what I'd read in the past. The author did such an incredible job weaving Irma's story into history, and it truly gave me all the feels. After reading her detailed journey to America, I feel like I was gifted a glimpse into the desperation and courage it took people like my ancestors to ...more
Jun 24, 2018 rated it liked it
Shelves: read-on-shelf
This review has been hidden because it contains spoilers. To view it, click here.
Sharon Jacksack
Apr 25, 2017 rated it it was amazing
I loved Irma's journey from immigrant to American.
Mar 29, 2017 rated it it was amazing  ·  review of another edition
This was a well written but not easy book to read because of the story being told. Set in the late 1800's, it is the story of Irma Vitale who leaves her small town in Italy to pursue her dreams of being a dressmaker in America. The author depicts well the difficulties, dangers and trials our ancestors faced leaving their homeland to establish a home in a country whose language they did not speak as well as facing countless other vulnerabilities which threatened them. In many ways, the novel ...more
Aug 21, 2011 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
Talia Carner
Apr 13, 2015 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
Feb 14, 2015 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
Sep 25, 2013 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 ...more
Jan 12, 2012 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
Oct 19, 2013 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, ...more
Apr 10, 2019 rated it liked it
Quick read. Interesting in a historical sense. I found the number of calamities that were visited upon the main character to be a bit much in the sense of a person's life. Every bad thing you can imagine, short of death, happens to the character. It was as though the author means her to be representative of an entire generation of immigrant women, rather than an individual person. But it's a decent book to pass some time with, say, riding on a train or airplane, or waiting in interminable lines ...more
Jul 21, 2014 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.
Denise Billings
Jan 04, 2015 rated it it was amazing
Shelves: owned-to-read
Well written, well researched. I felt everything that Irma felt on her journey from Italy to California during the 1880s. Supporting characters beautifully fleshed out, especially Molly. Her writing style is engaging, for example, "In the corner a cat killed a rat so neatly that its last squeak snapped like a dry twig."
Edward Sullivan
Feb 03, 2011 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.
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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 ...more