“If you leave Opi, you’ll die with strangers,” Irma Vitale’s mother always warned. Even after her beloved mother’s passing, 20-year-old Irma longs to stay in her Abruzzo mountain village, plying her needle. But too poor and plain to marry and subject to growing danger in her own home, she risks rough passage to America and workhouse servitude to achieve her dream of making dresses for gentlewomen.

In the raw immigrant quarters and with the help of an entrepreneurial Irish serving girl, ribbon-decked Polish ragman and austere Alsatian dressmaker, Irma begins to stitch together a new life . . . until her peace and self are shattered in the charred remains of the Great Chicago Fire. Enduring a painful recovery, Irma reaches deep within to find that she has even more to offer the world than her remarkable ability with a needle and thread.

I can’t believe it’s taken me so long to review this book.I read this weeks ago and it is one of my favorite non-Maisie Dobbs books I’ve read this year. And that’s saying something because I’ve really been on a streak this year.

I fell in love with Irma right from the start. Not rich enough and too plain to hope to marry, even if there were enough men to marry in the small village of Opi, Irma just hopes to find a way to support herself and her Aunt Zia. After her hot head brother Carlo flees town to find his fortune in America and the prospect of her father marrying the towns widowed baker Irma feels her only chance is to head to America herself. What follows is an immigrant anyone can relate to.

Irma’s journey in steerage is described in such realistic detail you can feel the claustrophobic conditions and anxiety that comes with be confined for far too long. Irma makes the best of her circumstances even eking out a bit of romance. But we learn early nothing is going to be easy for Irma. When defending two women from the bigoted attacks of other passengers Irma’s face is horribly scarred. Yet, Irma perseveres. I found myself loving Irma as she braves each new hardship with grace.

We follow Irma from Cleveland to Chicago to San Francisco making her way as a seamstress and trying to find a place for herself in a strange new country. Amazing hardships befall Irma and I will admit there were two incidents that occur where I actually had to put down the book because I was so upset by what was happening to Irma. I just couldn’t take what was about to happen to her. I’m glad I went back of course, but if that isn’t the sign of a good book I don’ t know what is.

I think there’s something we can all relate to in the story of an immigrant in their new home. I think at one time or another we all feel like an outsider, like we don’t belong, we don’t know how things work. So, when we see Irma adapt and succeed in the face of overwhelming obstacles is a triumph for us.

I was very impressed by the amount of research that must have gone into this story. I really did feel I was right there with Irma as navigated her way through late 1800s America. I was fascinated by the connections Irma made, with the Alsatian seamstress-who gave Irma a chance to better her life, with Molly-the Irish maid with dreams of financial independence,with Jacob-the rag mad who saves Irma in her darkest hour, and with Sophia-the lay doctor how teaches Irma there is more possible than she ever imagined.

This book is really something special. I’m so happy I was sent a copy by Book Club Girl to participate in her Blog Talk Radio Show. Click on the highlighted show title to head over and listen to the discussion and go get the book. I’m sure you’ll be happy you did.