My grandmother emigrated to the U.S. from Southern Italy in the early 1900s. Only a teenager, she left her mother and several siblings behind, making the long ocean voyage alone with little money and no husband or job waiting for her in America. In my mind, she was a courageous woman, venturing from her home seeking what she hoped would be a better life. She never spoke about her journey, despite my many questions. I wondered how she survived traveling, probably in steerage, most likely in crowded, unsanitary conditions. What was it like seeing the Statue of Liberty? Arriving at Ellis Island and being subjected to examinations before being allowed to stay? Was she frightened? Did she make friends along the way?
I never received answers from my grandmother but I now have the next best thing—Pamela Schoenewaldt’s beautiful novel, When We Were Strangers, that tells the story of a young Italian woman, Irma Vitale, who leaves her village in Southern Italy to come to America. As Irma’s journey unfolds, Schoenewaldt’s descriptions bring the story to life. We can understand the conditions that drove Italians to leave their country:
That night as men crowded our tavern to celebrate, a blizzard roared down the Alps. We pulled our breeding ewes from the fold and brought them home in the blinding snow, where for three days and nights there was only the stench of sheep to warm us. The rest of our naked flocks froze to death. Beasts ate their flesh. Two days later an avalanche covered the grain fields with rubble. And so began a hunger year, not Opi’s worst, the old ones swore, but terrible enough.
Irma’s mother dies, and her brother, Carlo, boards a ship for America, telling his sister he will send for her when he is settled in Cleveland. Irma spends her days taking care of her father and elderly aunt, Zia. Skilled at needlework, she works to embroider an altar cloth for the neighborhood church. Then, one evening, her father returns from the tavern drunk and forces himself upon his daughter. The assault is the catalyst for Irma’s decision to leave for America, a decision supported by her aunt.
Nothing about this journey, however, is easy. She walks to a neighboring village, Pescasseroli, and takes a ride to Naples with a peddler, paying him by embroidering a cloth with flowers as a gift to his wife. When she arrives in Naples, there is a long wait before the ship will leave. Irma makes friends with the other travelers, sharing stories and dreams about what they will find in the new world. Boarding the Servia, relegated to steerage, in the bowels of the ship, Irma finds she has entered hell:
Each day, for some new cause, the captain would not let steerage up on deck….So we lived below. We scrubbed clothes in salt water that left them stiff. We took turns emptying the chamber pots, cleaning the dormitory and dodging clothes that hung in moist mazes between our berths….The air was thick with sweat, kerosene, garlic, wet wool, fouled linens and our stale breath.
Irma reaches Cleveland, but never locates Carlo. Her talent with a needle finds her work embroidering designs on collars in Cleveland, then sewing dresses for wealthy women in Chicago. Schoenwaldt’s characters whether major or minor leap off the page and become real to us. There’s Missus Ballios who runs the workhouse, subjecting young women to sweatshop conditions, while she profits handsomely for their creations. Irma has better luck in Chicago, working for Madame Helene, whose gift of a beautiful green dress brings Irma brief happiness.
A tragedy soon takes Irma down another path and what might have seemed impossible back in Opi soon is within Irma’s grasp. Schoenwaldt handles Irma’s growth skillfully. Her transformation from a “greenhorn” to a skilled professional is believable and inspiring.
America is a country of immigrants and each one has a story to tell. Irma’s story, like that of so many immigrants, is one of survival. We have all had Irma’s in our life—relatives, friends, neighbors. When We Were Strangers helps us understand their journeys a little bit better.
When We Were Strangers (Click on the title to buy on Amazon.com)
Photo of the Naples Harbor courtesy of the Library of Congress
Author Photo: Maurizio Conti