When he was a young 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 possessed her Army-issued footlocker. It was strictly off limits to young Luis. “Of course, I opened the trunk,” Urrea says. “And I found all kinds of war stuff.”
The photos and other mementos Urrea discovered gave him a glimpse into the enormity of what his mother had seen in Europe, where she worked serving coffee and fresh pastries to soldiers, often dangerously close to the front lines. His bittersweet novel, the product of years of research, is a tribute to his mother and the other volunteers of the American Red Cross Clubmobile Service, telling the little-known story of the “Donut Dollies” who bravely supported U.S. 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 that his mother never spoke much about her wartime service but that she 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 he began to think about a book shortly after his mother died in 1990.
He recalls sitting in a San Diego diner, “feeling blue,” when he was moved to tears by the sight of an older woman sitting alone, rummaging for coins in her pocketbook. He thought of his mother’s years of sorrow, anonymously paid for the woman’s lunch, and a novel was born.
“Good Night, Irene” meticulously re-creates the journey his mother took across Europe, landing in England, following Allied troops onto Normandy Beach and then rumbling across France in a 2.5-ton GMC truck, fitted with coffee urns and a doughnut maker.
The book’s heroine, Irene Woodward, a blue-blooded New Yorker fleeing a soured engagement, stands in for Urrea’s mom, who came from a similar background. Irene is paired up with Dorothy Dunford, an Indiana farm girl mourning the combat death of her big 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 story of the “Donut Dollies,” a term the women were trained to discourage.
Typically 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 doughnuts, they brought mail, chewing gum and even a record player that could be connected to a speaker system for a little extra cheer.
A breakthrough came about 10 years ago, when Cindy Urrea tracked down Jill Pitts Knappenberger, Phyllis’ best friend during the war and the principal driver of their truck, the Clubmobile Cheyenne. Urrea had thought the woman his mother referred to as “Darling Jill” had died in the war, but it turns out she was living just 90 minutes from the author’s home near Chicago.
And at 94, she was eager to talk. “Jill said to me, ‘I drove the truck, but your mother brought the joy,’” Urrea says. And that was a shock to him, because while he occasionally saw his mom light up, “it wasn’t our daily bread at all.”
Phyllis McLaughlin grew up in Staten Island, N.Y, 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 the heartthrob actor Errol Flynn, with red hair and blue eyes, thanks to Irish family roots. “There was a consulate party, a fancy dinner and dance,” Urrea says. Phyllis went with co-workers from the I. Magnin department store where she worked. “Mother danced with my dad, and that was it. They fell apart with love. And they were married there in City Hall. They were in a hurry.”
The fairy tale romance seems to have crumbled quickly. Phyllis was unaware that her new husband was about to leave the presidential staff, and they soon 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 filled with ethnic strife. “It was brown versus Black versus white, depending on what corner you were on,” he says.
“You can imagine me, you know, little white boy with, at that time, a Tijuana accent, talking like this all the time,” he says, falling into an accented lilt. “I 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 was hooked on literature, especially “The Jungle Book” and science fiction by 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 went on to study writing at UC San Diego, with graduate studies at the University of Colorado.
While Urrea was in college, his father — by then separated from his mother — died after an encounter with Mexican police as he was driving home from the Sinaloa region. It fell on the young Urrea to retrieve the body of his father, which the authorities withheld until he paid $850 for “bail.”
Urrea ended up writing about the experience, and his professor handed the story to science-fiction master Ursula K. Le Guin, a visiting lecturer at the time. It was Urrea’s break: Le Guin published the story in an anthology, and the two formed a lasting connection. “Ursula became my coach — my life coach and my writing coach — and my secret buddy,” Urrea says.
Urrea is perhaps best known for “The Devil’s Highway,” his 2004 account of a deadly journey across the Arizona desert by 26 Mexican men desperate for a better life in America. The book was a Pulitzer Prize finalist. His previous novel, “The House of Broken Angels,” a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist, tells the story of a dying family patriarch, modeled after his half brother, who gathers his relatives together for one final, epic birthday fiesta.
Luis Alberto Urrea and the birth of his big new book, ‘The House of Broken Angels’
All Luis Alberto Urrea wanted to do was write a short tribute to his late sibling.
Le Guin, who Urrea says encouraged him to be a feminist, would no doubt be proud of his latest effort, written from the viewpoint of the unsung women who had their own reasons for going to war. In taking on historical fiction. Urrea said he worried a bit about “whatever constituency I think I might have as a writer.”
“But you know, I never signed up to be Border Boy,” he says. “I take different tacks often, and I publish fiction, nonfiction and poetry, so I talk about a lot of things.” What ties it all together, he says, is his desire “to memorialize people that I have been so in awe of, or in love with, or transformed by, or taught by, that would otherwise be forgotten.”
At 67, Urrea says he has reached an age when he has lost not only most of his relatives but many of his closest friends as well. And the writer has been through what he described as “a county fair of illnesses,” including a brush with cancer, although he says he is well now.
“I think you have to get to a certain place in life to trust that a dear boy’s story about his mama is as important as a daring, hard-boiled investigation into the Border Patrol and a hideous death in the desert,” he says.
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To celebrate the release of the new book, Urrea and his wife bought a new Honda CR-V Hybrid and will be driving across the country through much of the summer, stopping in bookstores along the way for receptions — featuring doughnuts and coffee, naturally.
And while Urrea jokes that his filial duty is done, he’s already at work on his next book, researching a fictionalized history of Tijuana, where he spent a lot of time growing up, visiting his father’s family and enjoying the country life, “where they grew their own food, and there was lots of it, and music and crazy joy.”
“It’s such a fascinating story,” he says. “I’m going through lots of archives, and when you see the old pictures of the beach in Tijuana, it was wide open. There was no border, there was no fence. You could just walk all the way to Coronado and back if you wanted to.”
After plunging into the dark history of World War II, his new research project is refreshing, he says. “This one is my recuperating, fun book.”
Wolk is a Seattle writer who previously worked for Reuters and MSNBC.com.