As a boy growing up in San Diego, author Luis Alberto Urrea opened the Pandora’s box that eventually led to his new novel, “good night irene.”
Urrea’s mother, Phyllis Irene McLaughlin de Urrea, had served in World War II as a volunteer with the American Red Cross and still owned her army trunk. It was strictly forbidden for young Luis. “Of course, I opened the trunk,” says Urrea. “And I found all kinds of war stuff.”
The photos and other memorabilia Urrea discovered gave her an idea of the enormity of what her mother had seen in Europe, where she worked serving soldiers fresh coffee and pastries, often dangerously close to the front lines. Her bittersweet novel, the product of years of research, is a tribute to her mother and the other volunteers of the American Red Cross Mobile Service Club, telling the little-known story of the “Donut Dollies” who bravely supported US troops in combat.
Urrea, author of 17 previous works of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, joins the Los Angeles Times Book Club on July 19 to discuss “good night irene” with Times editor Iliana Limón Romero.
Urrea said her mother never spoke much about her service during the war, but suffered terribly from nightmares, likely undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder from what she saw and experienced, including a Jeep accident that left her badly scarred. In a recent interview, Urrea said that she began thinking about a book shortly after her mother’s death in 1990.
He remembers sitting in a San Diego restaurant, “feeling sad,” when he was moved to tears to see an older woman sitting alone, rummaging through her purse for change. He thought of her mother’s years of pain, he anonymously paid for the woman’s lunch, and a novel was born.
“Good Night, Irene” meticulously recreates his mother’s journey across Europe, landing in England, following Allied troops to the Normandy beach, and then driving through France in a 2.5-ton GMC truck, outfitted with coffee pots and a donut making machine
The book’s heroine, Irene Woodward, a blue-blooded New Yorker fleeing a bitter engagement, replaces Urrea’s mother, who comes from a similar background. Irene is paired with Dorothy Dunford, an Indiana farm girl mourning the death in combat of her older brother, and the two form an instant bond.
To research the book, Urrea and his wife, Cindy Urrea, spent years combing through journals and other documentation and traveled thousands of miles across the United States and Europe to understand the history of “Donut Dollies,” a term the women learned to use. discourage.
Generally well educated and older than the soldiers they supported (the minimum age was 27), the Red Cross volunteers wore blue tweed uniforms and regulation lipstick. In addition to coffee and donuts, they brought mail, gum, and even a record player that could be hooked up to a speaker system for a little more pep talk.
A breakthrough came about 10 years ago, when Cindy Urrea tracked down Jill Pitts Knappenberger, Phyllis’s best friend during the war and the primary driver of her truck, the Clubmobile Cheyenne. Urrea had thought that the woman her mother referred to as “Darling Jill” had been killed in the war, but it turned out that she lived just 90 minutes from the author’s home near Chicago.
And at 94, she was itching to talk. “Jill told me, ‘I drove the truck, but your mother brought the joy,’” Urrea says. And that came as a shock to him, because even though he occasionally saw his mother lighting a cigarette, “it wasn’t our daily bread at all.”
Phyllis McLaughlin grew up in Staten Island, New York, while Urrea’s father, Alberto, was from Mexico and an aide to the Mexican president. The couple met in San Francisco after the war. He was a military man who resembled heartthrob actor Errol Flynn, with red hair and blue eyes, thanks to his Irish family roots. “There was a party at the consulate, an elegant dinner and a dance,” says Urrea. Phyllis went with co-workers from the I. Magnin department store where she worked. “Mom danced with my dad, and that was it. They fell apart with love. And they got married there in the Town Hall. They were in a hurry.”
The fairytale romance seems to have quickly collapsed. Little did Phyllis know that her new husband was about to leave the presidential staff, and soon they were living on a dirt road in Tijuana, where Luis was born in 1955. After a few years, they moved to the Logan Heights section of San Diego. , which Urrea describes as a tough neighborhood full of ethnic conflicts. “It was brown vs. black vs. white, depending on which corner you were in,” she says.
“You can imagine me, you know, a white kid with, at the time, a Tijuana accent, talking like that all the time,” he says, falling into an accented cadence. “He was in a maelstrom of hopelessness.”
At some point in Urrea’s early childhood, his mother introduced him to “The Adventures of Tom Sawyer,” and Urrea became hooked on literature, especially “The Jungle Book” and the science fiction of Ray Bradbury, Isaac Asimov, and others. .
The Urrea family eventually moved north to the Clairemont section of San Diego. Urrea graduated from Clairemont High and then studied writing at UC San Diego, with graduate studies at the University of Colorado.
While Urrea was in college, his father —by then estranged from his mother—died after an encounter with Mexican police while driving home from the Sinaloa region. The young Urrea had to recover the body of his father, which the authorities retained until he paid $850 for “bail.”
Urrea ended up writing about the experience, and her professor gave the story to science fiction teacher Ursula K. Le Guin, a visiting professor at the time. It was Urrea’s break: Le Guin published the story in an anthology, and the two formed a lasting connection. “Úrsula became my coach, my life coach and my writing coach, and my secret friend,” says Urrea.
Urrea is perhaps best known for “The Devil’s Highway,” his 2004 account of a deadly journey through the Arizona desert by 26 Mexican men desperate for a better life in the United States. The book was a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. His previous novel, “The House of Broken Angels,” a finalist for the National Book Critics Circle Award, tells the story of a dying family patriarch, inspired by his half-brother, who gathers his relatives for one last epic Birthday Party.
Le Guin, who Urrea says encouraged him to be a feminist, would no doubt be proud of his latest effort, written from the point of view of anonymous women who had their own reasons for going to war. By assuming historical fiction. Urrea said he was a little worried about “whatever constituency I think I might have as a writer.”
“But you know, I never signed up to be a Border Boy,” he says. “I often go different directions and publish fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, so I talk about a lot of things.” What ties it all together, he says, is his desire to “commemorate the people I’ve been so amazed at, enamored with, transformed or taught about, who would otherwise be forgotten.”
At 67, Urrea says he has reached an age where he has lost not only most of his family members, but also many of his closest friends. And the writer has been through what he described as “a county disease fair,” including a brush with cancer, though he says he’s fine now.
“I think you have to come to a certain point in life to trust that a beloved child’s story about his mom is just as important as a bold, tough investigation into Border Patrol and a gruesome death in the desert,” he says.
To celebrate the launch of the new book, Urrea and his wife purchased a new Honda CR-V Hybrid and will be driving across the country for much of the summer, stopping at bookstores along the way for receptions, with donuts and coffee, naturally.
And while Urrea jokes that his filial duty is done, he is already working on his next book, investigating a fictional history of Tijuana, where he spent much of his time growing up, visiting his father’s family and enjoying life in the countryside, “ where they grew their own food, and there was a lot of it, music and crazy joy”.
“It’s such a fascinating story,” he says. “I’m going through a lot of files, and when you look at the old photos of the beach in Tijuana, it was wide open. There was no border, there was no fence. You could walk all the way to Coronado and back if you wanted to.”
After diving into the dark history of World War II, her new research project is refreshing, she says. “This is my fun and recovery book.”
Wolk is a Seattle writer who previously worked for Reuters and MSNBC.com.