“I ask for water, clear my throat, and say: ‘This is 1913. Your lives can change.’”
This mandate, one of the first thoughts by protagonist Lucia Esposito in Pamela Schoenewaldt’s novel “Swimming in the Moon”, echoes a fundamental belief throughout Schoenewaldt’s work: the ability to overcome.
In the novel, Schoenewaldt’s second, a young immigrant girl from Naples struggles to find justice in the impoverished factories of Cleveland while caring for her emotionally unsettled mother, whose former glory as a singer is overshadowed in the strange new world of vaudeville. These characters, like Schoenewaldt herself, are no strangers to feeling out of place.
“I lived for ten years near Naples, Italy, and while I became fluent in Italian, and had a rich social life, I often felt myself a stranger, an immigrant,” Schoenewaldt said.
This period of cultural isolation has formed the basis for much of Schoenewaldt’s work as a writer ever since. Her first novel, “When We Were Strangers”, follows a young Italian seamstress in her emigration to America in the 1880s. It was a USA Today Bestseller, a major book club pick, a Barnes & Noble Great Discovery, short-listed for the Langum Prize in American Historical Fiction, and has since been translated into Polish, Dutch and Russian.
Her second work, “Swimming in the Moon”, has received lavish attention and was the runner-up for Langum Prize. And it was this work that Schoenewaldt first considered when asked to speak as a special guest for Women’s Week at Maryville College this October.
The Rev. Dr. Anne McKee, campus minister for the college, met Schoenewaldt through their church and was highly impressed by her work. With its various accolades and women-centric content, Schoenewaldt seemed like a natural choice to speak at the annual Women’s Week.
“I think she will be a good speaker for all students, but since her novels particularly tell the stories of female characters who are trying to manage on their own under difficult conditions, I think she particularly will be appropriate for Women’s Week,” McKee said, “Her stories deal with young women and the challenges they face across generations – finding good work, finding good work and dealing with employment issues under harsh conditions, dealing with parents through illness, finding one’s political voice. I think her presentation will connect with students on many levels.”
Schoenewaldt believes that, despite the historical focus of her work, the obstacles faced by the young women it deals with are still extremely relevant today.
“In Italy in my novels’ time period, and in the industrial cities of the United States, young working women were definitely an underclass, often exploited, working and living in unsafe situations, being pressed to identify themselves by external relationships: their family, a husband, their ethnicity or social class. Some of that is true today. A century ago, young women might earn 50% of a man’s salary for the same job. Today we are barely at 80%. There are glass ceilings everywhere. So it’s a challenge,” Schoenewaldt said.
Her answer to this is and always has been one of strong action and a self-motivated will to see change come to fruition. Unlike many fiction writers, Schoenewaldt doesn’t buy into the idea of a greater romantic truth or a happily ever after. Rather, her characters earn their place through hard work and resolve.
“I purposefully created characters who were neither wealthy nor beautiful, so they didn’t have any obvious route to power or Cinderella prospects,” Schoenewaldt said, “They achieved by force of character, persistence, intelligence, and steady focus on which battles were worth fighting. I think that’s still true today.”
Schoenewaldt points to this sort of self-sustained transformation as the pinnacle and focus of her work: “For me, the character’s journey and transformation is paramount. The historical context shapes that journey, of course, but I seek the tension between fidelity to history and focus on how the character interacts with his/her world, and how this process transcends time and becomes part of the human experience.”
Still, despite her aims for a greater, timeless sense of growth and the relevance of her work to women in the world today, Schoenewaldt maintains a lingering sense of humility and presence about it all. Still the woman lost in a culture very unlike her own in the little town outside of Naples, Schoenewaldt maintains that she does not have anything specific to teach her readers.
“I don’t have a lesson to give. Yes, some historical context, but not a moral or instructions. I do feel that narrative art is about connection, empathy, and the liberating experience of getting out of ourselves, our world, and our world view,” Schoenewaldt said, “This is good for the mind and good for the soul.”
It is her best hope simply to share the experience she’s gained with others and see what changes may come: “I work hard on the texture, the phrasing and pace and sensory world, and hope that for the hours of reading, one can see with another’s eyes. That’s what I love in reading and hope to pass on to those who read my books.”
However, try as she might to pass the credit on to others, it would seem that Schoenewaldt has a great deal of wisdom to share. For the young women of the world—and any other readers for that matter—her work’s greatest lesson may be echoed from that first thought in “Swimming with the Moon”: It’s 2014. Today is the day. Now is the time. Your lives can change.
Schoenewaldt is set to speak at the Center for Campus Ministry on Thursday Oct. 30 at 7:00 PM. Her other works have appeared in literary magazines in England, France, Italy and the United States. Her play, “Espresso con mia madre” was performed at Teatro Cilea in Naples. She taught writing for the University of Maryland, European Division and the University of Tennessee and continues to speak and lead writing workshops in the area on a regular basis.