Posts Tagged ‘women’s issues’

It’s my pleasure to host Pamela Schoenewaldt on the blog today.

Pamela is the author of two historical novels, both set in Cleveland and detailing the lives of immigrants in that city. I enjoyed When We Were Strangers, her debut, and recently reviewed her latest, Swimming in the Moon (which I loved) for Shelf Awareness.

Here’s the beginning of my review, which details the novel’s plot:

As the 20th century begins, 14-year-old Lucia and her mother, Teresa, enjoy a charmed life as servants in a Neapolitan villa, where Teresa soothes their mistress’ headaches with her songs. But when Teresa’s volatile temper puts them both in danger, they flee to America, settling in Cleveland. Teresa finds factory work alongside other immigrant women, but her beautiful voice soon earns her a place on the vaudeville stage.

Lucia, clever and ambitious, studies hard and graduates from high school, dreaming of college. But labor unrest ripples through Cleveland’s immigrant community, and Teresa is fighting her own inner demons. Lucia must find a way to care for her mother, pursue justice for her fellow workers and follow her own dreams.

As I said in the rest of my review, Swimming in the Moon is an evocative, compelling portrait of immigrant life in the early 1900s. The narrative touches on many issues of the day, including women’s suffrage, harassment of female factory workers, mutual distrust among immigrant groups and the often brutal treatment of mental patients.

I loved the wide variety of women’s experiences represented by Lucia, Teresa and their circle of female friends, from independent small-business owners to women who gladly give up their factory jobs for marriage and children. Lucia’s struggle to balance her bold dreams with social realities, economic limits and her ever-increasing responsibility to her mother sound achingly familiar.

Pamela has agreed to answer a few questions about her inspiration for the novel and some of the issues that affect her characters’ lives. My questions are in bold below, followed by her answers:

What was your inspiration for the story of Teresa and Lucia in Swimming in the Moon? Were there historical events/places that drew you to write about them?  

When I was presenting my first novel, When We Were Strangers, at Cleveland’s Western Reserve Historical Society, I already had the idea of another immigrant journey, this one set around 1910, the crest of European immigration. In the Society’s archives, I found reference to the Garment Workers Strike of 1911 and thought: Perfect! Novel gold!  Also, I saw references to vaudeville and have always been fascinated by this uniquely American theatrical form.

Brooding over these ideas were vivid memories from the ten years I lived along the Bay of Naples. One was the shadow of Vesuvius at night when the full moon made a white path in the bay. The other was Palazzo Donn’Anna, a magnificent 16th-century villa with a lurid past, where my Italian teacher lived (see photo). The third was the San Carlo Opera House. I imagined a gifted, emotionally fragile servant woman trying to be “discovered” by a great maestro in a way that horrifies her daughter. From these images, I created my plot lines and began to work.

You’ve now written two novels about the immigrant experience in Cleveland. What drew you to write about that city particularly?

I lived near Cleveland when it was a scruffy, post-industrial city, so it was appealing to cycle back to when its industrial strength was being built of immigrant labor. I also was drawn to the differences between the Bay of Naples and Lake Erie and how Italian immigrants might have felt, in the winter perhaps, when they stood on the grimy lake shore and thought back to the warm, blue waters they left behind. Yet Cleveland had bustle, promise, raw energy and opportunity they never could have had in the Old Country. Those contrasts are ripe fields for fiction.

What do you find most fascinating about the times in which Lucia and Teresa lived?

I’m intrigued by the links between their times and ours. Societies were undergoing swirling change from immigrants pouring in, cultures mixed, new technologies, and new art forms like cinema coming in. In Lucia’s time, only eight in a hundred young people would graduate from high school. She sets herself to be one of those eight.

Women were realizing their power in the suffragette movement, in labor and the arts. In the cities, ethnicities were thrown together as they hadn’t been before, like Lucia’s Italian and Henryk’s Jewish family. Can their love, in Lucia’s words, “negotiate” that gulf?

How did you decide to weave the various issues of the day (labor unrest, mental illness, women’s suffrage, etc.) into the novel – or did it happen organically?

One of the opportunities for historical fiction, for any fiction, is to have our characters face out the great issues of their time and ours. Lucia must deal with her mother’s serious mental illness. Yes, psychology was in its infancy and many “treatments” were absurd by our standards, often thinly veiled sadism, driven by racist or sexist thinking.

Yet today, one family in four in America deals with serious mental illness. Despite new treatments and deeper understanding, we’re much better at fixing broken bones than broken minds. Many of my friends are as deeply challenged as my Lucia in balancing their own needs against those of a suffering family member.

I’m active in worker justice issues today and have spent many hours registering voters, so in this novel I was fascinated by the challenge of weaving issues I care about into the journey of two complex and gifted women.

Learn more about Pamela and her books at her website.


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