Luis Alberto Urrea pays tribute to WWII's forgotten volunteers — including his mother
Many of us baby boomers grew up with World War II as a felt, if silent, presence. The fathers of my childhood friends served in the Air Force, the Army and my own dad in the Navy on a destroyer escort, but we kids knew of their war mostly through a few black-and-white photos, or the foreign coins that rattled in their dresser drawers. They really didn't talk much about the war.
Luis Alberto Urrea is a fellow baby boomer with a different World War II inheritance. 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 his mother was assigned to Patton's 3rd Army, trapped behind enemy lines in the Battle of the Bulge, and was with the troops who helped liberate Buchenwald. Urrea also writes that his mother, who he now realizes suffered from undiagnosed PTSD, never spoke to him of her service.
Urrea is celebrated for his books about the U.S.-Mexico border, particularly his nonfiction work, The Devil's Highway, which was a 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist. Good Night, Irene is a departure: drawing on his mother's journals and scrapbooks and the spotty information that's survived about the Clubmobile corps, Urrea has written a female-centric World War II novel in the mode of an epic like Herman Wouk's The Winds of War, replete with harrowing battle scenes, Dickensian twists of Fate and unthinkable acts of bravery and barbarity.
In Good Night, Irene, Urrea pays moving tribute to his mother and her Clubmobile comrades whose wartime service was largely forgotten because, even though they sometimes served under fire, they merely staffed what was called the "chow-and-charm circuit."
Urrea's main characters in this wartime buddy novel are two young women seeking escape and purpose: Irene Woodward, much like Urrea's own mother did, volunteers as a way out of a disastrous engagement back home in New York. Dorothy Dunford, a farmgirl 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 Rapid City. It's a two-and-a-half ton marvel, equipped with two coffee urns, water tanks, boiler and burners, donut machine, Victrola and stacks of swing records, and rifle clips. As Irene reflects, "The truck was like a little B-17. Everything in its place. Bombloads of donuts in the racks, all arrayed vertically, waiting to be delivered."
Urrea's sweeping storyline follows the women's induction in Washington, D.C., a North Atlantic crossing where their convoy is attacked by U-boats, mechanic training and gas mask drills in the English countryside and, ultimately, arrival at Utah Beach a month after D-Day where the Rapid City joins a cadre of other Clubmobiles with regional pride names like the Annapolis and the Wolverine. Here are some descriptions of Irene and Dorothy multitasking in France:
"The work had all faded into a long line of faces — faces and faces lined up at the window, staring at them. ... Small trucks came and went laden with more damned donut mix and coffee beans and sugar and grease and bags of letters they had to distribute. ...
On their right hands both women sported aluminum rings fashioned by GIs out of the downed German airplanes scattered around the landscape ... They each felt like war brides to a few thousand husbands. ...
It was also becoming clear, ... that their job had yet another feature nobody had trained them for. They were engaged on most nights in listening to confessions. ... [The boys] needed to talk. ... It was the Great Unburdening."
As befits a contemporary war novel, Good Night, Irene is morally nuanced: It doesn't turn away from scenes of random violence inflicted by our "boys" and it also acknowledges the traumas endured by many who served and survived. Maybe, in Good Night, Irene, Urrea has written yet another powerful "border story" after all: this time about the border between those who live in blessed ignorance of the worst humankind can do and those who keep that knowledge to themselves, often locked in silence.
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