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Book Review: Good Night, Irene by Luis Alberto Urrea

It had not taken them long after arrive in Glatton to understand that their service was not truly about the donuts and coffee. They had seen enough boys fail to return from a morning flight. 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.

Good night ireneThere is so much historical fiction written about World War II that I have grown resistant to it. The sheer volume is overwhelming, and it can become repetitive: just another somebody’s interpretation of the impact a war can have. (Do I sound jaded? They just all can’t be full of excellent writing, strong character development, and meaningful interaction.) Sometimes it feels like WWII fiction is written simply because it will sell, but in a sense it almost starts to become a sort of…exploitation, somehow.

But I was strongly drawn to reading Luis Alberto Urrea’s novel, Good Night, Irene, when I read an early review that discussed how the book is based on his mother’s experiences during the war. The American Red Cross had a little-known program called Clubmobiles, which were large trucks outfitted with kitchens. Women managed these on bases and on the front lines of the war in the European theater, making donuts and coffee for the soldiers. As with most of women’s contributions to the wars of the twentieth century, most of the stories of the Clubmobiles haven’t been shared. I certainly had never heard of them, but the author’s mother managed one. Urrea worked for two decades, travelled many miles, and interviewed other “Donut Dollies,” as the women who ran the Clubmobiles were called, to write this novel.

I am so glad I set aside my no-WWII-fiction resistance to read this book, as it is amazing. At the center of the story are Irene and Dorothy, two women who are very different but form a strong, supportive, and honest friendship. There are romances, family relationships, experiences with soldiers and other Dollies, but this friendship is the core of the story. It felt authentic to me; the two women don’t always agree, and sometimes, during their long, slow drives through war-damaged country, they get on each other’s nerves. They don’t always understand each other’s choices, actions, or perspectives. But they always lean on and support each other.

 Since there were not women soldiers in WWII, we rarely see women in battle. But since the Clubmobiles were literally on the front lines, Irene and Dorothy are often right in the thick of it. They experience many of the crucial battles of the last year of the war, including the Battle of the Bulge. They are in the middle of a small French town when it comes under the Germans’ war plan and have to fight to keep themselves alive. They help with liberating Buchenwald (a brutal chapter). The war is not something happening miles away, but only feet, and that makes it immediate both for the characters and the readers. (I had to take a break a few times, to gather my composure.) And through it all, they are there for each other.

Good Night, Irene is one of the best historical novels about World War II that I have ever read.




Because the novel is based on the author’s mother, I never doubted that Irene would make it through the war. I did not think Hans would (because Urrea is a Mexican-American and Hans was from Oregon), and I was iffy on Dorothy surviving.

So the way the novel ended, with Dot & Irene finding out, near the end of their lives, that the other had not, in fact, died in the crash of their Clubmobile?

At first it confused me. When I realized the chapter was talking about Dot taking a cross-country trip with her granddaughter, not Irene, I was at first the tiniest bit annoyed. I thought it might be something like Kate Atkinson did in A God in Ruins (another WWII novel I love), an alternative-universe thing, and I was a bit bugged. But when I realized that, no, they just really didn’t know the other was alive—I don’t know. It wasn’t the brutal ending I was expecting, and it was maybe a bit too coincidental (like, why would Dot want to visit Irene’s grave in New Jersey? Would she have a grave there if she was burned to death in the Clubmobile?) but I decided to let it be OK. It made me trust the author and want to read more of his work.


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