A novel centered on the women of World War II by Luis Alberto Urrea : NPR
Many of us baby boomers grew up with World War II as a felt, if silent, presence. My childhood friends’ fathers served in the air force, army, and my own father served in the navy on a destroyer escort, but we kids knew about their war mostly through a few pictures in black and white, or the foreign pieces rattling around in their dresser drawers. They really didn’t talk much about the war.
Luis Alberto Urrea is another baby boomer with a different World War II heritage. His mother served as a Red Cross volunteer in an outfit called the Clubmobile corps, providing donuts, coffee and friendly conversation to the troops.
In an author’s note to his panoramic historical novel, Good night Irene, Urrea tells us that her mother was assigned to Patton’s 3rd Army, trapped behind enemy lines during the Battle of the Bulge, and was among the troops that helped liberate Buchenwald. Urrea also writes that his mother, who he now realizes had undiagnosed PTSD, never told him about his service.
Urrea is famous for his books on the US-Mexico border, especially his non-fiction work, Devil’s Highway2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist. Good night, Irene is a departure: drawing on her mother’s diaries and scrapbooks and the patchy surviving information about the body of the Clubmobile, Urrea wrote a female-centered novel about World War II in the form of an epic like that of Herman Wouk. The winds of warfilled with harrowing battle scenes, Dickensian twists of fate, and unthinkable acts of bravery and barbarity.
In Good night, IreneUrrea pays a moving tribute to his mother and his Clubmobile comrades whose wartime service has been largely forgotten because, although they sometimes served under fire, they merely occupied what was called the “chow-and-charm circuit”.
Urrea’s main characters in this wartime buddy novel are two young women in search of escape and purpose: Irene Woodward, much like Urrea’s own mother, volunteers to get out of a disastrous engagement at her home in New York. Dorothy Dunford, a farmer from Indiana, has nothing left to lose: her parents are dead and her brother was killed at Pearl Harbor.
Together, the women will become the crew of an American Red Cross Clubmobile dubbed the fast city. It’s a two-and-a-half-ton wonder, complete with two coffee urns, water tanks, boiler and burners, donut maker, Victrola, and stacks of swing discs and rifle magazines. As Irene says, “The truck was like a little B-17. Everything in its place. Donut bombs in the racks, all laid out vertically, waiting to be delivered.”
Urrea’s storyline follows the women’s induction into Washington, D.C., a crossing of the North Atlantic where their convoy is attacked by submarines, mechanical training and gas mask drills in the English countryside and, finally, the arrival at Utah Beach a month after D-Day when the fast city joins a group of other Clubmobiles with names of regional pride like the Annapolis and the Wolverine. Here are some descriptions of Irene and Dorothy’s multitasking in France:
“The work had melted into a long line of faces – faces and faces lined up at the window, looking at them. … Small trucks came and went loaded with a mixture of donuts and coffee beans and sugar and grease and sacks of letters they were to distribute. …
On their right hands, both women sported aluminum rings made by GIs from the downed German planes strewn across the landscape… They each felt like war brides to a few thousand husbands. …
It was also becoming clear, … that their work had yet another characteristic that no one had trained them for. They were busy most nights listening to confessions. … [The boys] need to talk. … It was the Great Unloading.”
As befits a contemporary war novel, Good night, Irene is morally nuanced: it doesn’t shy away from scenes of random violence inflicted by our “boys” and it also acknowledges the trauma endured by many who served and survived. Perhaps, in Good night, Irene, Urrea has written another powerful “frontier story” after all: this time about the frontier between those who live in blessed ignorance of the worst humanity can do and those who keep this knowledge to themselves, often locked in silence. .