My mother’s Uncle Joe carried his rifle, his rucksack and his baseball mitt across North Africa, up Italy and into the Third Reich. I never met him, but his mitt still hangs in an honored place in my parents’ home.
After reading Luis Alberto Urrea’s sixth and latest novel, Good Night, Irene, I’m beginning to understand what my great-uncle’s daily experience as a blisterfoot was like. Not that the novel’s about a GI’s slog through World War II. It’s about Urrea’s mother’s.
Long before American troops set foot in occupied Europe, General Dwight D. Eisenhower decided his soldiers were going to need American women serving them coffee and donuts on the front lines to keep up morale. The American Red Cross recruited the women, trained them in making donuts, driving and maintaining the two-and-a-half ton GMC trucks outfitted as their Clubmobiles, and running through Great War-style gas attacks. The Red Cross did not give them any weapons training or issue them small arms.
These courageous women served donuts and good cheer all the way to Berlin, and then they faded from history. Urrea spent 20 years tracking down documents and photos about his mother and the other Clubmobile women and walking his mother’s wartime journey. He paid attention to every small detail along the way.
The protagonists of Urrea’s New York Times-bestselling novel, Irene and Dorothy, aren’t exactly his mother but they could well have been her comrades in arms. They ship out to Europe in a convoy attacked by U-boats. They wake long before dawn in an English village to serve coffee and donuts to departing bomber crews, then wait for their return. The women and their Clubmobile land on the Normandy beaches in the company of fighter planes and are greeted by a sergeant telling them to “put your f---in’ helmets on!”
I could barely breathe during the chapters in which the two friends run from the Germans bent on retaking a French town and hide while the Americans reliberate it. The crashing noise and then the utter stillness. The plaster sifting down on their faces. The stench of the broken sewers. The skittering, scrabbling squealing of the fleeing rats. Urrea has captured what has to have been the visceral experience of civilians trapped between panzers and howitzers.
From Normandy the women head to Bastogne, Belgium, where icicles drip off their helmets. Although they usually deliver the mail from their mobile canteen, in the Ardennes forest they run from foxhole to foxhole within speaking distance of enemy positions.
At this point, Irene and Dorothy have been pulling on their masks of good cheer for over a year, half of which has been spent within yards of the front lines. As their unit fights its way into Germany, with danger lurking palpably behind every hill and every sentence, their allies among the GIs take to setting up their pup tents around the Clubmobile when the women sleep beneath it.
In Weimar, General George Patton himself asks the women to serve coffee and console the GIs who have liberated Buchenwald. When they arrive, survivors of the concentration camp are still milling about in a daze and U.S. Army bulldozers are shoveling the dead into mass graves. Only then does battle fatigue or shell shock catch up to the friends. After all, no one considered that the women themselves might need a shoulder to lean on.
Urrea neglects nothing in his intense reconstruction of the Red Cross women’s odyssey. He gives us the sounds, smells, sights and tastes — both pleasant and vile — of travelling, of combat and of waiting. We feel the women’s hopes, fears, anger and laughter, as well as their pains, both physical and emotional. It’s their immense fortitude and compassion, plus sheer cussed endurance, that gets them into the heart of Germany.
I can’t help but feel that Dorothy and Irene deserve better than what they get in the end. But Good Night, Irene is a realistic depiction of war, not a Hollywood movie.
Megan Koreman lives in Royal Oak, Michigan. She is a historian and author of The Expectation of Justice: France, 1944-1946 and The Escape Line: How the Ordinary Heroes of Dutch-Paris Resisted the Nazi Occupation of Western Europe. A young adult novel, Dark Clouds over Paris, is forthcoming. Read more at dutchparisblog.com.