Last week I had the pleasure of reading what will be one of my favorite novels of 2011 and that was When We Were Strangers by Pamela Schoenewaldt (my review and be sure to follow the link at the end of the post to the giveaway currently running). It’s a great journey in the life of a young woman who immigrates to America. So it is with great pleasure that I welcome Pamela here today at Peeking Between the Pages as she shares with us her thoughts on the village of Opi and what her mental image of her main character Irma was…
In the 1990s, when my husband and I lived in Naples, we went with friends to the mountain village of Opi in the Abruzzzo National Park. Opi is tiny, as you see in the photograph, isolated, serene, even somber.
The people are kind and gracious but reserved. The village has been poor for centuries, with a slight recent economic lift from tourism in the park. Yet as I walked the quiet streets, I saw some houses with dates in the late 1800s carved into stone doorframes. Money for these houses must have come from America, I reasoned – for there were only shepherds, cheese-making, a little winemaking and some needlework then.
Walking in the winter dusk, I conceived of a young, cloaked woman I later named Irma (a common Abruzzo name), solitary, not beautiful, accustomed to hardship. She wants to earn her living doing work she can be proud of; . She doesn’t want to be an object of charity or a sex object. Modest requests, but when Opi could not meet these requests and there is only one path forward – out of Opi and into a world that is utterly foreign, what then? This novel is Irma’s journey to answer that question.
I happened to be in Brooklyn visiting a friend about the time I began writing When We Were Strangers and we went to the Brooklyn Museum of Art. There I came upon a portrait by Corot, “Young Woman of Albano,” painted in the 1880s, the time of my novel. Albano is near Rome. This young woman’s quiet, thoughtful pose, the grace of her gesture, and modest, calm pride spoke to me of Irma Vitale. Fortunately the museum bookstore had a postcard of the portrait. I bought it and kept it above my computer as I wrote, next to another postcard from Ellis Island of immigrants’ trunks. Both images, and the memories of Opi, helped to frame my story.
For more about inspirations and writing processes, for When We Were Strangers, I hope you’ll visit my website: www.PamelaSchoenewaldt.com
Enjoy Irma’s journey — and your own!
Thanks so much for sharing this wonderful story with us Pamela! Just looking at the picture of Opi makes me long to walk through its streets.
About the Book
“If you leave Opi, you’ll die with strangers,” Irma Vitale’s mother always warned. But Irma is too poor and too plain to marry and can’t find honest work in her tiny mountain village in Southern Italy. Barely twenty, she must leave home bearing only native wit and astonishing skill with a needle. Risking rough passage across the Atlantic, a single woman in a strange land, Irma seeks a new life sewing dresses for gentlewomen.
Swept up in the crowded streets of nineteenth-century America, Irma finds workshop servitude and miserable wages, but also seeds of friendship in the raw immigrant quarters. When her determination leads at last to Chicago, Irma blossoms under the hand of an austere Alsatian dressmaker, sewing fabrics and patterns more beautiful than she’d ever imagined. Then this tenuous peace is shattered. From the rubble, confronting human cruelty and kindness, suffering and hope, a new Irma emerges, nurturing a talent she’d never imagined and an unlikely family, patched together by the common threads that unite us all.
About the Author
Pamela Schoenewaldt lived for ten years in a small town outside Naples, Italy. Her short stories have appeared in literary magazines in England, France, Italy and the United States. Her play, “Espresso con mia madre” (Espresso with my mother) was performed at Teatro Cilea in Naples. She taught writing for the University of Maryland, European Division and the University of Tennessee and now lives in Knoxville, Tennessee with her husband, Maurizio Conti, a medical physicist, and their dog Jesse, a philosopher.
Thanks again Pamela and everyone please be sure to check out the giveaway I have running right now open worldwide for your chance to win your very own copy of When We Were Strangers!
© 2010, Darlene of Peeking Between the Pages. All Rights Reserved. If you’re reading this on a site other than Peeking Between the Pages or Darlene’s Feed, be aware that this post has been stolen and is used without permission.