FICTION: Luis Alberto Urrea’s captivating novel dives into adventures of female volunteers in World War II.
“Good Night, Irene” by Luis Alberto Urrea; Little, Brown (416 pages, $29)
In the musical “Hamilton,” George Washington croons to aide-de-camp Alexander Hamilton, “History has its eyes on you.”
But do the Founding Father’s words apply to kitchen staff, grunts in trenches and Rosie-the-Riveters, unexpectedly summoned to a larger cause? Luis Alberto Urrea tackles this thorny question in “Good Night, Irene,” his genial yet gimlet-eyed novel set in World War II. It’s based on his mother’s stint as a Red Cross volunteer in Europe.
“Good Night, Irene” kicks off as a boisterous romp, spiked with repartee and good cheer as Benny Goodman’s orchestra sing-sing-sings in the background. After her affluent fiancé strikes her, Irene Woodward abandons Manhattan to aid the war effort, hopping a train to Washington, D.C., where she joins women from across the nation — including Ellie, a wisecracking Chicagoan, and Dorothy, a tall drink of water from rural Indiana. They’re designated the crew of the Rapid City, a coffee-and-doughnuts truck outfitted to maneuver behind the lines, boosting the morale of men in harm’s way.
Their esprit de corps quickly ebbs when a U-boat sinks a transport ship and Irene spies dead soldiers, floating in the icy Atlantic Ocean. Ellie flees during a London stopover, leaving behind fellow “Donut Dollies” Irene and Dorothy to a dangerous mission in the French countryside after the D-Day invasion.
Although exhausted and irritable, Irene and Dorothy flirt and banter with the troops, lifting their spirits: “Both women sported aluminum rings fashioned by GIs out of the downed German airplanes scattered around the landscape. Small gestures of love. They each felt like war brides to a few thousand husbands.”
Like a tightrope artist, Urrea keeps narrative forces in balance, the slang of naïve America in tension with the atrocities of combat. He pivots off not just historical fiction but also genre romance, as sparks fly between Irene and dashing bomber pilot Hans. Urrea captures the period and its people, aside from rare anachronisms such as the use of “bad boy” in one errant bit of dialogue.
As battles escalate, the Donut Dollies struggle through the carnage, finding personal freedom in the midst of Europe’s liberation. Urrea shifts points of view to capture his characters from a range of angles, limning their personalities, as when German soldiers study Irene through binoculars: “They called her the Lady Deer, or the Deer-Girl. A fellow from Warnemünde wanted to shoot her, but his rifle was shoved down by his mates and he was scolded and forbidden to track her through his scope. … She was like some stanza of Goethe [their] professors had once drilled into them. Running from tree to tree with her excited, wide-eyed intrigue.”
Urrea’s electrifying language sneaks up on us. The 2005 Pulitzer Prize finalist for “The Devil’s Highway” re-creates the time and place beautifully but allows room for surprise, building to the novel’s crescendo. “Good Night, Irene” is a fleet-footed performance by a generous craftsman, underscoring the contributions made by the Greatest Generation’s women.
Hamilton Cain reviews fiction and nonfiction for a range of venues, including the New York Times Book Review, Washington Post and Boston Globe. He lives in Brooklyn.