Lucia and her young mother Teresa are house servants in Italy. They are generally protected from the cruelties of the count by the countess who often asks Teresa, who possesses an angelic voice, to sing to her to alleviate her headaches. But Teresa has mood swings and suffers fits of rage and when the vicious count allows his physician to torture her in the name of treatment, Lucia is also seized for treatment. But Teresa defends her daughter, attacking the count and the two of them must flee the villa. With the help of the majordomo, Paolo, and money from Contessa Elisabetta, they escape to America, ready to forge a new life in their new country.
Once settled in Cleveland in a boarding house run by Paolo's cousin, Lucia has the opportunity to go to school, learn English, and work towards a high school diploma while Teresa works as a chocolate dipper and then finds her way into vaudeville singing as the Naples Nightingale. And for a while they seem to be adjusting and even coming closer to fulfilling some of their dreams. But an immigrant's life is not easy and they face injustice and hardship even as they persevere. Lucia finds dear friends who support her in her American life but Teresa slips and her mental instability grows until finally, Lucia, who only enjoyed a short and dreamlike time at Hiram College, is called back to Cleveland to care for the mother who has had a complete breakdown and can no longer be left unsupervised.
Although Lucia's education has made it possible for her to avoid factory work herself, she is still a young woman of the immigrant community and she sees the hardship and injustice that so many others have to endure in local factories and workshops: low wages, grueling work hours and forced overtime, inappropriate advances by bosses, random fines and firings, and dangerous working conditions. And she sees the ways in which the workers are exploited because of their poverty and their inability to come together as one large group, which only results in their remaining downtrodden and abused. Unable to ignore the plight of her friends and neighbors, she becomes involved with the union and helps to organize a strike in the wake of the Triangle Shirtwaist Factory fire. Her formal education may have come to an end with her mother's escalating mental illness but Lucia finds her passion in working with the union and organizing the strike.
Lucia is a smart, compassionate, and determined character. She endures everything that life throws at her, the horrors and the heartbreaks, and yet she never gives up, adjusting her dreams to reality, always moving forward no matter how painful. Schoenewaldt has done a marvelous job drawing the reality of life for immigrants at the turn of the twentieth century in an industrial city like Cleveland. Her portrayal of labor and unions and the driving forces for and against is well done. And in addition to the historical aspect of the novel, she has written a touching novel of mother daughter love and caring. Lucia's devotion and her big heart are in evidence in all of her relationships but never more so than when she cares lovingly for her diminished mother. Adding in the tragedy of mental illness and the barbaric treatment available for it at the time is perhaps one strand too many in this historical fiction but it does add one more trouble, and really the driving trouble, to Lucia's story so I'm not certain how it could have been left out. Over all this is a quick and fascinating look at a piece of our nation's history that should not yet have faded from our collective consciousness.
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Thanks to Trish from TLC Book Tours and the publisher for sending me a copy of this book to review.