This is my third novel by Urrea and it has opened a new dimension of this author for me. One of his previous books, The House of Broken Angels, was an affectionate portrait of an extended Mexican-American family in San Diego; I’ve read that one of the angels was based on Urrea himself. This book centers on the experience of a woman who grew up in the New York area and dispensed coffee and doughnuts for the Red Cross on the front lines in Europe during World War II. Urrea dedicated this book to his Anglo mother Phyllis who like the fictional Irene grew up in New York and was a member of a three-woman crew that drove an American Red Cross club mobile in Europe traveling the roads as he described.
The dialogue reads like movies of the era, clever and brave chat in the face of horror, danger, and death. And that was what was called for from these women who brought a bit of home to the front. From the outset I had the feeling that this fictional book was intent on faithfully recording the work of the women in the Red Cross corp in the midst of the war. We learn how they were trained, where they went, and the conditions they experienced.
In the case of the fictional truck, called the Rapid City, it was outfitted with doughnut and coffee makers and stopped wherever they were needed to crank out wisecracks, along with the caffeine and sugar. The two women at the center of the story were the New Yorker Irene and Dorothy, a farm girl from Indiana who was adept at driving big vehicles. Their experiences include being separated from their unit of soldiers, being caught in a firefight in a village somewhere in France, meeting Patton, being at Buchenwald in the days after it was liberated, being in a terrible accident.
In his very helpful and moving Author’s Note, Urrea said he had originally intended to write a non-fiction account of what his mother experienced. The Red Cross archive detailing the routes, the personnel records of participants, everything, was destroyed in a fire in the 1970s. He used personal letters, a self-published book, newspaper interviews, and recorded interviews as the basis for his fiction. After his mother’s death, he became friends with his mother’s truck-mate, a woman named Jill. He and his wife visited Jill for years and heard all her stories of that time. Even when she was 100 years old she could deliver those wisecracks.
Urrea tells this story with great warmth, making it irresistible.
Luis Alberto Urrea, Good Night, Irene, Little, Brown and Company, 2023, 407 pages (I listened to the audiobook read by the author). Available at the public library.