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Amanda Bergeman February 15, 2024
(iStock)

You may have never heard about the Doughnut Dollies. A group of American women in the Red Cross who passed out doughnuts and coffee to soldiers on the front lines in the Second World War, much of their recorded history was lost when the building housing their archives burned down.

Good Night, Ireneby Luis Alberto Urrea

Little, Brown
416p $29

 

In Good Night, Irene, Luis Alberto Urrea painstakingly pieces this history back together from first-person accounts, scouring remaining records and personally traveling to every location mentioned to find answers. These accounts allow him to weave a vivid and heartfelt tapestry. The book becomes a love letter to his late mother, herself a Doughnut Dolly in World War II.

Urrea is a Mexican-American best-selling author who has won multiple awards for his poetry, fiction and essays, including being named a Guggenheim fellow and being a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize. Good Night, Irene is not his first time mining his family trauma to create a well-researched historical fiction novel. The Hummingbird’s Daughter and Queen of America memorialize his great aunt, Teresita Urrea, who was known as “The Saint of Cabora” and “The Mexican Joan of Arc.” And in The House of Broken Angels, he fictionalizes the death of his half-brother, who was raised in Mexico. Urrea grounds his stories in personal history, incorporating an authenticity that feels textured and lived in.

Good Night, Irene is not Luis Alberto Urrea's first time mining his family trauma to create a well-researched historical fiction novel.

Good Night, Irene reconciles grief and tragedy by depicting a life in service of others. The only way the Doughnut Dollies learn to live in darkness is to become the light themselves. Urrea rewrites history to breathe healing into the tragedies his mother was never able to process fully.

Irene, the character based on Urrea’s mother, Phyllis Irene, joins the war as a young, naïve runaway. She sees the war as an adventure and a way to escape her abusive fiancé. Irene’s partner in the Red Cross, Dorothy, is a little more weathered and down to earth; she drives the giant Red Cross Clubmobile all over Europe while Irene daydreams and writes poetry in the back.

The friendship forged under fire between these two women is the beating heart of the book. They see each other in a way no one else does. While Irene may need Dorothy’s strength at the story’s beginning, in the end, Irene’s softness saves them.

The leaders of the Red Cross try to warn the pair: “You’ll be shocked. You’ll think you’re strong, you’ll think you’re tough, you’ll think you can take it, you cannot take it, and then you will not be shocked anymore. That’s what war does to you, so you can keep on going.” They are there to serve the men, remind them of their humanity, smile, flirt, and be the shining faces of home and what they are fighting for. It’s an old-fashioned idea, but there is something beautiful about making a space for joy and comfort in a war zone.

That said, this was not an era of working through feelings and processing trauma. Like the soldiers they served, the Dollies themselves were in survival mode. Rule number one was to never let the men see them cry. The Dollies were there to put on a happy face and smile through the pain.

The concept of the Dollies was more than a little insane. While men fought for their lives, these women came in their Clubmobiles and handed out little treats. But it is this very insanity that creates the magic of the book. In times of darkness, dread and death, the smallest spark of love and hope shines the brightest.

Good Night, Irene reminds us why we must fight for life, light and goodness in a culture of death.

Throughout the harrowing events of the book, these bright young women become hardened by trauma. They visit a concentration camp, and all they can do is take pictures. Irene runs into a bombing, trying to help, but she is slapped in the face with the fact that there is nothing she can do. She’s not a nurse or a medic; she can only hold victims as they die. Later, when she is under fire herself, she hears women screaming as German soldiers forcibly take them. She cannot even muster the courage to pray for them, hiding in the hay; all she can pray is that she is not taken herself. Afterward, she’s wracked with guilt, praying, “Bless me, Father, for I have sinned.”

Dorothy is driven mad by the inaction that makes up such a significant part of every soldier’s life. She joins a secret mission outside of the army to gun down Germans herself under the cover of night. But when she takes the life of a German soldier, she is surprised to find she is not soothed or invigorated by her vengeance. She feels cold and empty. She asks herself, “Had I sinned?”

The women do not feel the warmth of the light they are trying to ignite. They feel swallowed by the darkness that surrounds them. Near the end of the book, Dorothy finds a baby in a deceased mother’s arms. In a moment of desperation, she takes it in as her own. This is not a woman longing to be a mother; this is a woman who cannot face another death. Irene doesn’t understand: She thinks Dorothy is acting irrationally. How will they care for a child in the back of a Clubmobile? Dorothy implores Irene, “It can’t be about killing, it must be about living.” At that point, Irene trusts her friend as a partner and does what she says. It is a powerful act of rebellion—a refusal to surrender to circumstances.

Good Night, Irene reminds us why we must fight for life, light and goodness in a culture of death. These women may not have felt they made much of a difference, but as depicted by Urrea, we as readers can recognize them as the heroes they were.

Reading the end of the book on my flight home for Christmas, I found myself openly sobbing. Life is so precious, but it is easily taken for granted in times of peace. Good Night, Irene reminds us why life is worth fighting for.

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