Teresa and her daughter Lucia come to America in the early 1900s from Naples when they are forced to leave because of some trouble that could put their lives in jeopardy. Pamela Schoenewaldt’s beautiful novel Swimming in the Moon is the story of their quest for a good life in an unfamiliar country and among unfamiliar people.
Teresa was only 14 when she had Lucia, the result of rape. Teresa is really only a child herself, and in fact, the two are often mistaken for sisters. Lucia is brought up in a wealthy household where Teresa is a servant. Teresa is — well, high-strung is a kind way of putting it. That is how her behavior is considered by those who live with her. In reality, she has the beginning stages of mental illness.
But she also has a beautiful singing voice, and music is how she comforts herself and her child. Upon coming to live in Cleveland, she eventually goes to work in a vaudeville company as a singer.
At the same time that Teresa is finding the opportunity to use her beautiful voice, young Lucia is learning to speak English and finding her way in her new world as well. Swimming in the Moon is often joyful and frequently poignant, the kind of novel that makes you want to shout hoo-ray at times. Other times you will cry.
Swimming in the Moon allows the reader to see how the Industrial Age impacted poor people, often immigrants, who worked the machines and made the corsets and packed the meat in the early years of the 20th Century, and it’s not a pretty picture. Reminiscent of Upton Sinclair’s The Jungle, however, it illustrates the importance of people who were committed to making the workplace better and more humane. The novel is a commentary on immigration, workplace conditions, and mental illness. The reader often squirms. But the stories are told in a beautiful and loving way.
The cast of characters in Swimming in the Moon are people I want to be with, and their stories are joyful and sad, unbelieveable and realistic. I imagine the problems new immigrants faced in this novel would ring true to someone who had come to the United States in the late 19th or early 20th centuries.
One of the things I like best about the book is that, while the author very clearly illustrates the problems new immigrants faced, there are few evil caricatures. The priest is Lucia’s friend, the teachers are helpful, the landlady is kind. That’s somewhat of a refreshing change from most novels, it seems, where all of the people in authority are the villains.
As I read the book, I kept wondering how Schoenewaldt would end it. Not being a big fan of sad endings, I held my breath. As it was, I cried at the end, but it was mostly tears of happiness. I think it ended exactly right.
I enjoyed this novel very much.