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Adult Books 4 Teens
Inside Adult Books 4 Teens

When We Were Strangers

In our third debut novel of the week, this one a paperback original, Schoenewaldt offers a traditional 19th-century coming to America story. What captured my attention was the writing — never a false step — a first-person narration that gives the reader a portal into the past, a peek at the cities of America in their infancy: Cleveland, Chicago, San Francisco. Very briefly, New York. Irma is a heroine who comes from nothing and through sheer hard work, goodness, and determination makes a life for herself.

This is a great example of a girl-in-peril story. Irma is so very vulnerable – a girl from a tiny mountain village leaves alone for America because she has no choice. Even making it as far as the port in Naples is perilous, not mention the voyage in steerage, meeting up with thieves, dishonest co-workers, men with bad intentions. Without speaking English, alone in an unfamiliar country, how is she to know who to trust?  What is it about girl-in-peril stories that are so compelling? One of my colleagues calls it the “there but for the grace of God go I” element.  Some very harsh things happen to Irma, including rape. There were points when it was hard to keep reading. But for every terrible event, Irma has good luck to balance.

Honestly, it is hard to imagine how she would have been successful without her talent for embroidery and sewing, part of what makes this story special.

There is a sad, bittersweet thread throughout the story of the desire of immigrants to return to their place of birth, to their families, having done well enough to help better their circumstances, or just to show off a bit. Irma dreams of returning home to share her experiences with the few people in her village who cared about her; she is always trying to send money home, even when she can barely take care of herself.

The issue of covers came up recently, and this is hardly a cover that will sell a book to most teen readers. So yes, once again hand-selling may be necessary. And because of some violent content, I would limit that to 10th grade and older. I do look forward to recommending this novel to students who have recently studied immigration and tenement housing in their history classes, and to those who enjoy sewing.

SCHOENEWALDT, Pamela. When We Were Strangers. 336p. Harper. 2011. pap. $14.99. ISBN 978-0-06-200399-7. LC number unavailable.  When We Were Strangers

Adult/High School–Irma is plain, but hard-working and talented at embroidery. In the late 1870s, she is only a teenager when it becomes clear that her best option is to leave her tiny mountain village of Opi for Naples and passage to America. Her brother Carlo has already left for Cleveland, and even though no one has heard from him since, Irma is determined to follow him there. In many ways, this is an old-fashioned coming-to-America story. It stands out for its vivid descriptions of living conditions, putting readers right there in steerage, wishing for a glimpse of the ocean or the night sky. Arriving on Ellis Island desperate to pass the medical inspection and find a seat on the right train. Struggling through long days in a workhouse, making collars, paid by the piece. Working in a fancy dressmaker’s shop in Chicago, enjoying the lake shore on the rare day off. There is tragedy and violence, but there are also good fortune and loyal friends. Irma’s life takes a turn when she meets a doctor who serves the poor and begins assisting her in the evenings. Teen readers will be fascinated by life at the beginning of industrialized America as we know it. Irma tells her story in an authentic voice, and she is a character about whom readers will care deeply. An engrossing recommendation, especially for students studying the immigrant experience.–Angela Carstensen, Convent of the Sacred Heart, New York City

Angela Carstensen About Angela Carstensen

Angela Carstensen is Head Librarian and an Upper School Librarian at Convent of the Sacred Heart in New York City. Angela served on the Alex Awards committee for four years, chairing the 2008 committee, and chaired the first YALSA Award for Excellence in Nonfiction for Young Adult committee in 2009. Recently, she edited Outstanding Books for the College Bound: Titles and Programs for a New Generation (ALA Editions, 2011). Contact her via Twitter @AngeReads.