Urrea draws on his family history for Good Night, Irene (Little, Brown, May), about the women of the American Red Cross’s Clubmobile service in WWII.
Good Night, Irene is dedicated to your mother, Phyllis de Urrea, who served as crew on a Red Cross Clubmobile in WWII. In what ways did she inspire the novel?
The entire book echoes her physical journey and all of the major events are based on her actual experiences. I wanted to give my mother a monument. She had her war chest in the apartment where I grew up. She didn’t ever want me to open it, but you can’t tell that to a boy. Fortunately and unfortunately, when I was in third grade, I opened the chest and found photographs from Buchenwald. Working on this book really defined my mom to me. [The character] Dorothy is based on my mother’s best friend, Jill. When I sat down with Miss Jill, she said, “I drove the truck, your mother brought the joy.” I felt like I knew my mom, but I did not know that mom. They were winning the war and having a wild adventure, until it turned to hell. My mother was pushed past her breaking point and plagued by nightmares and collapsed into her horrors. Good Night, Irene was my way to give my mother a happy ending. That was my plan the whole time, to reconcile her pain.
Why did this book feel important to write now?
This one snuck up on me, and I don’t know if I intended to write it. Partially it was my wife; she is a journalist and said, “Wait, what? Donut Dollies?!” They were completely forgotten. They were just there to make the boys feel good. One detail that just astonished me was that the Clubmobilers were trained to forget. They didn’t know where they were going. They had no orders but to serve. When they came back, the building that kept their records burnt down, and eventually our culture stopped remembering. It was a history of attrition.
You’ve been quoted as saying, “I am more interested in bridges, not borders.” Could you tell me about how this story seeks to unite?
To see the response from early readers has been really moving. People have known about it, and what is really interesting is that veterans will tell me something they’ve never told their family. Families have found out what they never knew. There need to be women heroes—this has always been a thing in my work. I’m answerable to women. To know that the records of at least 120 women were erased, I just couldn’t bear it.