Irene Woodward’s status-conscious family is happy that, at age 25, she’s engaged to an appropriate man. But Irene is restless — it’s 1943, and the world is at war.
When that appropriate fiance leaves her with bruises on her arms and face, she throws her engagement ring “down the storm drain on East Twenty-Eighth Street, halfway between Lexington and Park.” She already has an escape plan in place: She’s been accepted as a volunteer by the Red Cross. She’s going to war.
So begins Luis Alberto Urrea’s enthralling and heart-stopping new novel, “Good Night, Irene.” I can’t begin to count how many novels I’ve read that were set during World War II, but this book is among the very best of them.
It’s a departure from Urrea’s earlier work, which focuses on the complex interrelationships between the people and cultures of the United States and Mexico. His nonfiction book “The Devil’s Highway,” which recounts the perilous journey of migrants trekking through the Sonoran Desert to cross the border, was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize.
His last novel, “The House of Broken Angels,” is an epic, hilarious, touching tale of a Mexican American family that somewhat resembles Urrea’s own.
“Good Night, Irene” draws on his family’s history, too. His father was Mexican, but his mother, Phyllis, was American, like Irene, the daughter of an upper-class Anglo family. And like Irene, Phyllis went to war, although she never talked about it afterward.
Only after her death, when Urrea began reading her journals and letters, did he discover her experiences and begin to research them. Upon that framework he built this extraordinary novel.
Irene has joined a new Red Cross program called the Clubmobile Corps, women assigned to follow troops into battle and provide them with a touch of home: coffee, doughnuts and friendly female faces.
Doesn’t sound too tough? Think again, and keep that “follow troops into battle” part in mind.
At first Irene doesn’t take it too seriously, either. During training in Washington, D.C., she relishes the camaraderie of dozens of young women on their own, all looking forward to seeing the world.
She’s partnered early on with Dorothy Dunford. They’re an unlikely pair: Irene is feminine, pretty, outgoing and sophisticated, while Dorothy is a tall, taciturn farmer’s daughter whose most obvious talent is her ability to drive farm vehicles — a skill that will be useful when they get their mobile kitchen, a 2 ½-ton GMC truck with a built-in galley, a record player and five gearshifts.
Dorothy has her own reasons for wanting to do her part, including the death of her older brother in the attack on Pearl Harbor. When she sees the bruises on Irene’s arms, she raises her eyebrows.
“Irene took her hand back. ‘Long story,’ she said.
“Dorothy put her own hands in her pockets. ‘Hope you stabbed him,’ she said.”
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It’s the beginning of a beautiful friendship.
They go to war in stages, learning everything from how to make the doughnuts — by the hundreds, from before dawn until after dark — to how to walk the delicate line of providing comfort, cheer and counsel to the soldiers while fending off flirtations, passes and sometimes worse.
They will learn much, much more through raw experience, starting with their voyage across the Atlantic in a military convoy. Orders are to keep sailing at high speed even if another ship is torpedoed, and when that happens before their eyes, the nightmares follow Irene for months.
Irene, Dorothy and a third woman, Ellie, are stationed at Glatton Airfield in England. (Ellie won’t stay long, leading to a running joke about the oft-replaced Third Girl on the Bus.) There, they’re deeply moved by the spectacle of dozens of planes taking off for battle — a scene Urrea describes so vividly you can almost hear their roar. The women also stand watch when the planes return, or don’t.
It’s their first taste of the real role they’ll play. The troops might call them Donut Dollies (which Dorothy hates), but for the most part the men respect and protect them, realizing how much they might need not just a sinker and a cup of joe but a shoulder to lean, or cry, on.
Glatton is also where Irene first encounters a cowboy turned Army Air Force fighter pilot who looks like Gary Cooper, goes by the nickname Handyman and winks at her the first time he sees her. He’s so damn perfect it annoys her, but theirs will be a love story amid the chaos. Along the way he’ll serenade her at just the right time with the Huddie Ledbetter song that gives the book its title.
Glatton is just a warmup. Their truck arrives, new, fully equipped and named the Rapid City. (Clubmobile trucks all take their names from U.S. geography.) Dorothy drives it off an LST onto Utah Beach a month after D-Day, and they hurry toward the front.
Dorothy and Irene arrive in a small French town that has been liberated from the Germans — just as the Germans arrive to take it back. This time, they’re not watching the war from a distance. The bombs are bursting and the tanks are rolling all around them, and their fight to survive is breathtaking (and not just because Irene is wearing her girdle, per protocol, through the whole thing).
That’s just the beginning. Back near Utah Beach, Gen. George Patton himself stopped by for doughnuts and told them, “You’re tougher than every one of these sons of bitches.”
After they endure the Battle of the Bulge, they’re sent to a charming German town called Weimar. There, Patton personally asks Irene and Dorothy to accompany the troops on a mission: “‘Something bad. Up the hill, at the Buchenwald forest. It’s a’ — he paused — ‘prison camp, I suppose you could say. But, ah, this is something ... different.’”
Urrea has always been masterful at bringing characters to life, and “Good Night, Irene” teems with a lively cast. It also bursts with scenes of war that are so intense they’re almost merciless: an escape from a house collapsed by a Panzer tank, an aerial battle and more.
The plot is beautifully crafted, from the unexpected ways the war affects Irene and Dorothy right through to the whiplash twists in its coda.
“Good Night, Irene” is a brilliant piece of storytelling, a compelling portrait of women’s friendships and a powerful tribute to courageous women like Urrea’s mother, women whom history has too often overlooked.
Good Night, Irene
By Luis Alberto Urrea
Little, Brown and Co., 416 pages, $29