Schoenewaldt’s moving debut tells a story of perseverance and courage in the face of tremendous adversity. In the late 19th century, young Irma Vitale has a heartbreaking choice to make. She could stay in her tiny village of Opi, Italy, and be a burden to her family because she has no marriage prospects, or she can follow in older brother’s footsteps and go to America, which offers the promise of success and prosperity.
Before Irma’s mother died, she told her, “Don’t die with strangers.” This advice echoes constantly through Irma’s thoughts, and she is afraid of dying alone. But she feels that she has no choice but to take that chance. Reluctantly, she leaves Opi behind and sets off on the risky voyage to America with the hopes of finding her brother in Cleveland.
Irma is only skilled with a needle and thread. After a frightening passage across the Atlantic, she eventually makes her way to Cleveland, where she ends up at a workhouse making collars. Her hours are long and her work conditions are poor, but she manages to make a few friends and save some money.
Irma’s ambition to become a dressmaker eventually compels her to move to Chicago. A fateful turn of events lands her in the shop of an Alsatian dressmaker, where she learns how to sew dresses for aristocratic women. Irma finally begins to feel a sense of security about her life - until one night, when an act of violence changes everything.
As she struggles in the aftermath of her tragedy, Irma meets a compassionate woman who helps her discover a new talent and purpose in life. This leads her to San Francisco, where, against all odds, she pursues her new calling and finds a family of her own.
Irma is such a plucky and spirited young woman that it’s easy for the reader to feel her triumphs and heartbreaks. Schoenewaldt’s evocative prose makes time and place truly come alive in this novel. When We Were Strangers grabbed me and wouldn’t let go. This is a heart-wrenching and beautiful read.