"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 dresses for gentlewomen.
In the raw immigrant quarters and with the help of an entrepreneurial Irish serving girl, ribbon-decked Polish ragman and austere Alsatian dressmaker, Irma begins to stitch together a new life . . . until her peace and self are shattered in the charred remains of the Great Chicago Fire. Enduring a painful recovery, Irma reaches deep within to find that she has even more to offer the world than her remarkable ability with a needle and thread.
When We Were Strangers is a compelling novel. I identified with how lost the main character, Irma, must have felt when she left her hometown to come to America. She suffered in a number of ways, and not knowing English for a period of time didn't help. While she was fortunate to have work, she was taken advantage of as so many women were in those days, especially immigrants. Her persistence, however, paid off and though she suffered other heartache and trauma, she came out in the end the kind of person that everyone loves and will miss. She was a hard worker and very respectful. She did what she had to do to survive, but she also thrived over time because she had a caring heart. She struggled with forgiveness, but given what she experienced that made sense to me.
This novel was inspiring and just one realistic example of how someone could work hard and eventually prosper in America. In the era that this book was written there were many immigrants from all over the world all hoping for the same dream of a better life. Irma did end up with a better life, but in the end she lost some of her identity, though she tried to hold on to it. She was a strong heroine, but clearly flawed and three dimensional. I suffered along with her in a number of situations, but as life often does, even those painful incidents brought her to the one thing in her life that gave her the greatest sense of purpose. She found who she wanted to be, and I was inspired by that revelation. There are some situations in this story that are not for people who are easily upset, but they weren't overly graphic or anything like that. Just painful situations that too many women face. I won't give a spoiler here, so if you want to find out what I'm referring to, you'll have to read the book.
When We Were Strangers was published by Harper Collins and released in January 2011. A copy of this book was given to me for the Harper Collins publicist to review. The opinion expressed above is entirely my own.