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June 2023

Book Review: Arch-Conspirator by Veronica Roth

Then at least we would be responsible for our own doom, instead of someone else deciding it for us. And really, isn't that the most any of us can hope for?

One of my most frustrating university discussions happened over a reading of Antigone. I don’t even remember now what literature class it was, who the professor was, or even what year I was in, but I still remember the other student’s face, her pale-red hair and floral dress.


Antigone by felix resurreccion hidalgo
Antigone by Felix Resureccion Hidalgo

I hadn’t read Sophocles before that class, but Antigone blew me away. We also read Oedipus Rex and Oedipus at Thebes but it was Antigone that hit me the hardest. Her loyalty to her brother and her determination to do what she felt was right; I even dreamed about her burial.

(Twenty-five years later it is still my favorite classic piece of literature.)

In a classroom conversation, we were asked who the hero of the story is. I think it is obvious: Antigone, of course. She is the hero because she doesn’t allow fear to determine her choices. She remains true to her ideals.

But the other student insisted I was wrong. Ismene is the hero, in her mind, because Ismene survives. Doesn’t she, in the end, try to stand up for her sister? Even if it’s too late, she does try. And by staying alive she makes sure someone exists to carry on Oedipus’s family line.

I didn’t know enough about so many things back then to explain why I thought she was wrong. I could have an excellent discussion of it now, from many perspectives (literary, religious, women’s rights…) And I certainly couldn’t, back then, have framed the story within a concept of sisters actually betraying each other, as I can now, so I couldn’t imagine, actually, how Ismene’s lack of courage hurt her sister, and in ways that had nothing to do with her horrific death. 

AntigoneAt any rate, I absolutely had to read Veronica Roth’s novella, Arch Conspirator, when I found out it is a futuristic, dystopian retelling of Antigone. I was so excited to read it that I put it off for a few months, because I worried I’d be disappointed.

But I was not disappointed.

The way that Roth takes the main points of Sophocles’ tales and reimagines them on the last city on a dying earth is just—well, the only word for it is “clever.” She builds a fully-imagined world with very few words, then sets her characters to interact inside of it, playing out their parts. THe story is told from several perspectives, Antigone (who is called “Tig” by her siblings, a little tidbit that sums up exactly what I mean by “clever”), Ismene, Haemon, Eurydice. 

I loved it so much.

I couldn’t help contrasting the Amy who read Antigone all of those years ago with myself reading this retelling of it. I’m almost not the same person at all. I am no longer afraid to use my voice as I was during those days at BYU, when I intrinsically knew I did not fit in or agree with the ways many of my classmates viewed the world, but I didn’t know how to put it into words yet. But we share our strong opinions about books, still, and are both still moved by Antigone.


In Arch Conspirator, the ending is different: Ismene still goes to her sister too late, but she goes anyway, and asks Antigone if she can go with her. (Instead of being buried alive, Antigone is to be sent to space on the last functional spaceship on earth, which is kind of the same thing.) 

And Antigone says yes. 

Ismene realizes that her relationship with her sister is the thing that gives meaning to her life, and she takes action on that decision.

I honestly would likely not have read this book if I had realized that, at its core, Antigone is a story about sisters. I don’t think it hit me in that light when I read it at 27, but now? After all that has happened, I can’t see it any other way: the beating heart of the story is sisterhood.

That Antigone relents and doesn’t go into darkness alone as a defense mechanism, and that Ismene realizes her mistake before it’s too late, and then ACTS on that knowledge?

I don’t know that that is a thing that could happen in real life. But it both broke my heart and gave me…what? Not hope, actually. Not that my own Ismene would ever again act on our relationship mattering to her. But just…a little glimmer that maybe I don’t know the ending of this story yet.

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.