What sparkles in Pamela Schoenewaldt’s novel of the American dream is the appreciation for all things organically wonderful. Irma, the novel’s protagonist, a young Italian woman living in the 19 century, believed that she would live in the tiny village of Opi, Italy for the rest of her life. As the novel, When We Were Strangers, opens, Irma is described as less than beautiful and hopelessly single. When her mother dies, she gives her daughter one last piece of advice: “Don’t die with strangers.”
Once her brother leaves unexpectedly for America, Irma begins to wonder what life would be like in the land of opportunities. She hopes to escape rough economic times (following a disastrous Italian winter season) for a new land where she will sew for the rich. Irma decides to take the leap over the Atlantic, and she settles onto the Seriva for 18 seasick days. When the voyage overseas finally ends, the longer and more laborious journey begins. She must now make a life for herself from scratch.
In the world of robber barons, inflation and rapid population growth in this new world, Irma’s position in America is particularly Gangs of New York-esque; her treatment goes from bad to life-threatening. She faces crime, unemployment and financial instability, but despite every calamity, the uplifting spirit of the novel shines through in Irma’s dream of owning her own store: “Irma Of Opi, Fine Dressmaking.” As Irma moves on to Chicago and later to San Francisco, she is able to find a new passion in medicine and from this discovery, she reinvents herself.
From the novel’s opening pages, Schoenewaldt develops Irma’s initially disheartened voice, one that is seen through a crack im her insecure front. Irma’s tone hides sadness and an anxiousness to find a man on whom to rely: “It was not for love that poor girls sought husbands. We yearned for daily bread and a tight roof.” However, in some places, her invariable perseverance seems slightly unnatural, as if the author’s portrayal of Irma’s spirit disregards her present state, whether of homelessness or loneliness. From the opening chapters, the fears that would normally fester in a girl traveling solo to an unknown land are present in only a fairly shallow manner. This confusion, however, is masked by Irma’s strong will and determination to help her family. When Irma is at her most vulnerable, Schoenewaldt’s diction injects beauty and reprieve into Irma’s frightened speech. When a storm threatens Irma’s well being, she tells herself, “I’m dead … dead among strangers like my great-grandfather in Russia. We sink, the ocean takes us. Now at least, the peace of death, but still we toss on mountain waves. I closed my eyes somehow slept, tangled and gasping for air under a vast black cloak” — an image that affirms her vocation.
When Irma sees the Atlantic Ocean for the first time, she calls it “A vast smoothed satin skirt, its distant hem tucked under a dome of sky.” Schoenewaldt sews into her imagery Irma’s love of needlework by describing the ocean with images of skirts and hems, as if describing an elegant sundress being folded with care.
And so, after her first glance at the vast, limitless world, Irma’s life starts again. In the end, she realizes that she has become a stranger to Opi, but that is no longer what is important. The mountain-scape of Opi will forever be sewn on her heart, yet the courage to acknowledge that she must make a new home for herself and her new family is what makes Irma a genuine American pioneer.
Overall, Schoenewaldt presents a dazzling tour de force that reveals the strength and will needed to succeed on the American frontier.
When We Were Strangers went on sale Jan. 25 and Malaprops will be hosting Pamela Schoenewaldt for an author event on Sunday, Feb. 27 at 3:00 p.m.