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From Merrimon Book Reviews
When We Were Strangers
When We Were Strangers by Pamela Schoenwaldt
by Pamela Schoenewaldt

Irma Vitale has spent her entire life in Opi, Italy.  Everyone knows everyone and few leave.  Her mother believes that if one leaves Opi, one will die among strangers.  Irma, plain and poor with few prospects in Opi, breaks away from her village to journey to a new world, America.   With her sewing skills, she hopes to work and make a living in this new land.  From the trip across the ocean to the sweatshop where she finds work, Irma has both an innocence and determination within herself.  While clinging to some of the ways her old life, she has the ability to make new pathways, facing new challenges with determination, fortitude and innovation.  Once she arrives in America, life is much harder as an immigrant than she ever imagined while living in Opi.  Irma focuses on her work and making ends meet.   Several times and in increasing measure, Irma faces obstacles that change her direction, not only in location but also in profession.  When she least expects change, suddenly, her life takes a drastic turn when her innocence is forever obliterated.  From tragedy, a new door opens in which Irma finds her true calling.

Pamela Schoenewaldt's debut novel WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS is a historical coming of age story of a young woman immigrant who journeys geographically across the ocean and inwardly as she faces new challenges and learns about herself in the process.  Pamela Schoenewaldt's prose is poetic in a straightforward almost simple rather than flowery way, a prose that resonates in its rhythm of images and phrases.  Irma is a complex yet easily likable character.   Irma makes some bad choices and at other times devastating events leave her with few choices.  The author creates depth in her character and overall emotion in the narrative in these often heart-breaking moments which test Irma.  WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS grabs a reader from the first moments with the beauty of its language.  The pacing towards the end feels a little fast, sometimes sacrificing the powerful detail and characterization of secondary characters that one finds more in the beginning in order to cover more territory.  While some readers might enjoy the quicker pace to satisfy the curiosity about how situations develop, Irma is such a thoroughly engaging character that this reader's interest would have been easily fixed in a novel with twice the page count in order to stay with her journey longer.   The brilliant beauty of the author's voice gets lost a little towards the end as the pace of action increases.  The encounter between Irma and a few characters are resolved a little quickly.  The sheer elegance of the language in the first part of the book perhaps makes it more noticeable than it would in a lesser book. 
Nevertheless, WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS keeps one glued to the pages from start to finish.  I found myself waking up earlier than usual just to be able to have more reading time.

WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS is an emotionally moving narrative.  Several aids in the back will assist book clubs but, even without those, WHEN WE WERE STRANGERS would make a very good book club selection.  Several scenes will provoke discussion and the themes presented in Irma's journey are those a reader can identify with even without Irma's history or background.  The author's historical research comes to life in Irma's journey.  Although the novel flows well, do not mistake this for lack of depth or narrative skill.  Though the novel reads easily, the author carefully constructs the presentation of her character, giving much richness and depth to Irma's story.  Within, there are many topics for discussion, not only in terms of plot and character but also the author's narrative style.  Pamela Schoenewaldt's debut novel is highly recommended for readers looking for a novel that challenges a reader emotionally with multi-dimensional characters and situations.

Publisher: Harper (January 25, 2011)

Reviewed by Merrimon, Merrimon Book Reviews
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