When We Were Strangers
“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.
When We Were Strangers begins:
I come from the village of Opi in Abruzzo, perched on the spine of Italy. As long as anyone remembers, our family kept sheep. We lived and died in Opi and those who left the mountain always came to ruin. “They died with strangers, Irma,” my mother said over and over in her last illness, gasping between bouts of bloody coughing that soaked our rags as fast as I could clean them. “Your great-grandfather died in the snow with Frenchmen. Why?” Read more