Martha Williams, Director of Programs and Education, recommends Good Night Irene, by the 2023 Hemingway Distinguished Lecturer, Luis Alberto Urrea.
“The real service was that their faces, their voices, their sendoff might be the final blessing from home for some of these young pilots. The enormity of this trivial-seeming job became clearer every day.”
In his newest novel, Luis Alberto Urrea tells of a crew of American Red Cross workers as they drive across Europe supporting World War II Allied troops. The story was inspired by the real experiences of Urrea’s mother, Phyllis Irene, who worked as a “Donut Dolly,” caravanning from airfields to war zones in a 2.5-ton GMC “Clubmobile” equipped with a deep fryer, coffee maker, and record player.
The novel follows the fun-loving and sophisticated Irene and the hard-edged midwestern Dorothy, who both come to the war effort escaping painful pasts. As their beast of a rig traverses the continent, Irene and Dorothy follow troops into the heart of battle. They find carefree moments at the edge of war and terrifying days of violence and terror that they’ll carry for their rest of their lives.
In the book’s early pages, a soldier who’s come home tells Irene: “If you get to come home, you will be so grateful you won’t realize at first that you survived. But once you know you survived, you’ll only be starting to understand.” A young and inexperienced Irene can’t yet understand the soldier’s words, but she will reflect on them later as she and Dorothy witness the aftermath of D-Day, remnants of French towns destroyed by the Nazis, and the Battle of the Bulge.
Urrea writes with a propulsive energy and a deep care for the real-life Clubmobilers and the soldiers they served. He creates entire worlds of wonder and reality inside vans and hotel rooms, on tarmacs and beaches, under bomb debris and back home. Each character―those based on real figures and those who are completely fictionalized―bring us into this under-explored but extraordinary war history.
Goodnight, Irene is at once a beautiful historical novel, capturing the ARC Clubmobile story, and an ode to Urrea’s mother and all the women who went to war in the only way they could: bringing a bit of home to the young men who traveled farther than they knew to fight a war. It’s also a love story, a story of a great friendship and of the lasting effects of war on hearts and minds.
Urrea opens to us an imagined experience of all the women who smiled and laughed and served donuts and coffee, even as they, too, longed for home and could never forget the losses incurred even when a war is won.
Urrea joins us for this year’s Hemingway Distinguished Lecture, which he’ll deliver on Friday, June 30 outdoors at the library. Learn more here.