I first met author Knoxville author Pamela Schoenewaldt a half dozen or more years ago. I was a drifting, struggling writer and I’d had her writing group suggested to me. Offered to members of the Knoxville Writer’s Guild, these groups are an excellent support in the creative journey. I joined and we crafted short stories together along with a changing cast of other writers, each bringing a unique perspective and a good critical eye to the work presented. Pamela stayed clearly a cut above the rest of our group, both in quality of writing as well as in drive to succeed as a writer.
Eventually she began work on a novel which would become When We Were Strangers, bringing it to the group for critique a chapter at a time. The novel involves a young girl who immigrates to the United States from Italy in the late 1800’s, struggles with prejudice and violence on the streets of her new country and ultimately finds a kind of peace. The book was released by Harper Collins in January of 2011 to excellent reviews and sold well. It continues to find new fans after over two years as witnessed by the fact that just this week it hit the USA Today best selling list.
As it became clear the first book would be a success, Harper Collins expressed interest in a second book. Pamela had begun writing a book set in Medieval Europe and told them about it. They asked if she didn’t have something else. Perhaps another immigrant story to build on her success with her first book. Of course, she said, “Why, yes I do,” and she proceeded to pull together a few thoughts she’d had running around in her mind including the labor unrest in Cleveland early in the twentieth century. She began scrambling to cobble the thoughts into a proposal and then a novel. She says pressure is an excellent muse.
The book that resulted follows fourteen-year-old Lucia from her home and life as a servant in Naples with her twenty-eight-year-old mother, Teresa. The two immigrate to Cleveland where they deal with the harsh reality of immigrant life. Teresa enters the world of vaudeville, but her struggles with mental illness threaten to destroy any life the two can build. Cleveland during this time was the setting for a garment worker’s strike in 1911 and the characters in this book find themselves immersed in those heady times.
At last night’s book launch at the Knoxville Writer’s Guild meeting at the Laurel Theater, Pamela noted that the workers were required to work sixty hours a week, plus mandatory overtime and were required to provide their own work tools. The focus of their demands was a fifty-hour work week. The story is about that time, but centered on the story of Lucia as she grows and changes as a result of the environment in which she finds herself.
Not shying away from the violence and issues of the time, the book tackles issues of discrimination, labor abuses, mental illness and immigration while remaining character driven. In response to a question at the book launch, she noted that it is not a history book, but rather a work of fiction which resides in a particular spot in history. It was a time of horrific abuses of laborers as well as the mentally ill and Pamela does not flinch when looking at this part of our history.
In the end, it is the way Pamela uses language, the way she finds a voice for her protagonist and gives her the words that bring us into her world which make this fiction so beautiful and enticing. I’ll leave you with some of those words as Lucia wonders whether her new life has turned out better than her old life as a servant in Italy:
“As I walked down Woodland Avenue, now as familiar to me as Via Roma, Cleveland felt fearsome, fraut with risks and dangers. I had grown, as Agnes said, but so had my troubles. From this distance Count Flippo seemed almost benign. I saw now why so many immigrants longed for home, even with its poverty. But how could this Lucia go back? I couldn’t fit my old life or ever be only a servant again.”
It’s a compelling story with relevance for America in 2013 with its fights over immigration, with the dissolution of unions with throngs of mentally ill citizens roaming our streets, homeless. You can find both books on Amazon, of course, but you’d do better to pick it up from Union Avenue Books when you are downtown. You might even snag a signed copy. She’ll also make appearances at various spots around the area before coming to Union Avenue Books for a reading on First Friday, October 4. In any case, just buy it. You will be richer for it.