What is the psychic cost of heroism? In the approaches taken by mid-20th century writers like Ernest Hemingway, battlefields were proving grounds where a soldier might discover what it is to be a man. In more recent writing about the front lines, the price exacted by survival and male coming-of-age was PTSD. In Luis Alberto Urrea’s “Good Night, Irene,” set in World War II, the women who serve as support staff on the front lines are doubly burdened. Eyewitnesses to death and destruction, they are expected to carry not only their own traumas, but also those of the men who see the women as their emotional pack horses.
While he is known for such harrowing nonfiction as “The Devil’s Highway,” or his fiction about Mexican-Americans in the borderlands, Urrea’s newest novel is a complete change of pace. His desire to write a book about these women was inspired by his own mother’s experiences as a “Donut Dolly,” the name given to those who made and served fresh coffee and doughnuts to men battling the Nazis. The novel draws from these stories, although Urrea makes clear in his reader’s note that Irene Woodward and Dorothy Dunford, his two main characters, are fictional. They have to be. Urrea has noted in interviews that while he grew up with a mother haunted by her experiences and clearly suffering from undiagnosed PTSD, she never spoke to her son about what she had seen.
Readers meet Irene as she leaves Staten Island in flight from an abusive fiancé. She’s never been able to settle into her role as New York socialite, and volunteering for the Red Cross is the latest in her efforts as a 25-year old woman to find a meaningful life. At the Washington hotel where she and other volunteers gather for orientation, she meets Dorothy, who has grown up on an Indiana farm, where she learned to drive and tinker with International Harvesters. Dorothy’s parents are dead, and her brother Donny perished at Pearl Harbor. A desire for revenge fuels her enlistment as a volunteer, but it’s also tinged by a longing for self-annihilation. “In some unacknowledged place inside herself, Dorothy hoped she would be taken in the war, a clean shot, and then find peace [in the family graveyard].”
Irene signs up for the recruiting poster version of the war. She sees it as an adventure, a chance, as she tells a returning soldier, “to serve my country … and this is what they’ll let me do. I have never made a donut in my life. And I don’t know how to drive a truck.” Filled with youthful optimism about her ability to make a difference, naïve Irene soon learns, as General Sherman declared, that “war is hell.”
On board the ship taking them to England, Dorothy and Irene witness the destructive power of the German U-Boats that stalk convoys of ships. And here Urrea shows the ways that the human brain adjusts when exposed to such horrors. The first thing to go is the women’s sense of continuity and mundanity. ”Once the world ended before their eyes, they had slipped into a form of time they did not know how to measure.”
It is one of the wonders of Urrea’s writing that while Dorothy and Irene are immersed every day in war’s horrors, the comradeship they find is the joyful, zestful pleasure in being young. Whether it’s going out dancing, drinking with flight crews and pilots, or sharing late-night confidences between them, Irene and Dorothy live and thrive in a space where many of those present know it might be their last hurrah.
That camaraderie and joy infuse the novel. But it’s tempered by the role they have been asked to serve. Sent to Glatton air base, “[i]t had not taken them long after arriving at Glatton to understand that their service was not truly about the donuts and coffee. They had seen enough boys fail to return from a morning flight. The real service was their faces, their voices, their sendoff might be the last blessing from home for some of these young pilots. The enormity of this trivial-seeming job became clearer every day.”
Urrea is brilliant at showing the costs of this emotional labor. Men confide in them day after day and night after night about what they have seen and done, and the women’s only psychiatric training is what they learned as girls, that traditional role of being sounding boards, providing the gentle smile for men in need of the emotional release of venting and crying. They find ways to cope: Irene plunges into a torrid love affair with a handsome bomber pilot, while Dorothy exorcises her demons by joining a band of brothers who carry out unauthorized, lightning-quick missions against the enemy.
“Good Night, Irene” is bound to become a classic of war fiction. Urrea provides a loving portrait of women asked to do the impossible. It’s a complex portrait of what happens to those tender souls who learn to don armor against daily horrors only to find themselves trapped in an emotional iron cage.
GOOD NIGHT, IRENE
By Luis Alberto Urrea
Little, Brown, 416 pages, $29
Lorraine Berry lives in Oregon. Follow her on Twitter @BerryFLW