On her death bed, Irma Vitale’s mother whispers a final warning: “Irma, don’t die with strangers.” Filled with her mother’s stories about the perils she would surely face if she leaves the isolated mountain village of Opi, Irma has never considered a life outside of this part of Italy. But then her brother, turning away from a life spent raising sheep, leaves to try his luck in America, and Irma begins to see that she has very few options herself. Faced with uncertain marriage prospects but a guarantee of poverty, a sick grandmother to care for, and a precarious home life, Irma soon realizes that she must also leave for America.
Pamela Schoenewaldt’s When We Were Strangers is the story of Irma Vitale, but it also by extension a story of the great immigration from Europe to the United States during the late nineteenth century. Schoenewaldt vividly describes the conditions these mostly poor and often desperate people faced during the voyage:
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. Hours crawled in the flickering gloom. We found a sea gait, rocking as we walked, flattening ourselves against walls and posts to let one another pass. The air was thick with sweat, kerosene, garlic, wet wool, fouled linens, and our stale breath. We spoke loudly, leaning close to our words beneath the boiler room’s steady growl, the cries of babes and children and the clamor of the sailors working just outside the thin walls of our chamber. We were always hungry, yet often could barely stomach the monotony of grease-slicked potage, beans, cabbage, and dried bread. The ship’s stores of potatoes had spoiled in the storm; rats had gnawed the dried fruit and thieves among us had found private stores of salami, cheese and nuts. Even music from the first-class quarters was a torment, too faint for pleasure and too present to ignore.
Conditions do not improve when Irma reaches America. In Cleveland, hoping to find her brother, she finds work making linen collars for twelve hours a day. Despite the grueling hours and a supervisor who frequently rejects good collars so she doesn’t have to pay for them, Irma eventually earns enough money to go to Chicago, where she hopes she’ll have a better chance of becoming a dressmaker. She quits the job, only to be robbed of her life savings on her way to the train station and forced to start all over again. There are times that Irma feels that dying among strangers would be better than the life she has found: “My mother was wrong. To die with strangers is no great thing. Even my great-grandfather on a Russian field had died a hero, a slow sleep in the snow. … Yet I lived. Wasn’t this far worse, shame among strangers?”
Schoenewaldt never shies away from depicting the hardships of Irma’s life in a new country where the language and customs are different, and most people don’t seem to care if these new workers live or die. But she also convincingly conveys Irma’s resiliency and strength, and the support she finds in her new country from people as varied as an African-American maid, an Alsatian dressmaker, a Polish ragman, and an Irish servant with the business sense of Donald Trump. In the end, despite Schoenewaldt’s unshrinking portrayal of the depredations immigrants faced at the end of the nineteenth century, this is not a bleak book, for Irma, even in the midst of the most horrible experiences of her life, ultimately finds a vocation and a community.
Pamela Schoenewaldt will discuss When We Were Strangers at 7 p.m. on February 10 at Borders Books in Nashville, and at other locations around the state in weeks to come. Check Chapter 16’s calendar, here, for details.