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Local author explores a forgotten tale of women at war

 June 8, 2023 at 12:29 PM PDT

S1: Much of local author Luis Alberto Urrea. His work has centered on life and hardship around the US-Mexico border. But in his latest novel , he takes a decidedly different approach to tell a story with deep personal ties to his own life. The book , Good Night. Irene , recalls the experiences of the so-called doughnut dollies , a group of female Red Cross workers during the Second World War. His mother was one of those silent heroes , and her experiences during the war inspired Urrea to give voice to a forgotten chapter of American history. He joins us now. Luis , welcome to Midday Edition. Hi.

S2: Hi. I'm so happy to be there with you.

S1: So glad to have you. This novel is different in subject matter to a lot of your previous work.

S2: And , you know , it took a lot of apprenticeship. But I also , you know , I'm really interested in literature of witness. And I was always representing , I think , the border because it just , you know , it's the gift that keeps on giving. But the entire time I was trying to understand how do I tell the story of these women.

S1: And the women at the center of this story we're referring to we're referring to them as the donut dollies.

S2: They would often tell people , don't call me Dolly. They were known as the club mobile core. And , you know , these women , especially in World War Two , ended up driving into combat. And some people have argued that there's no evidence of them having done it. But of course , there's million sources of evidence , including the own women's photo albums and letters and so forth. What really happened was that they were overlooked by the , you know , the historians , the hate to say this , but the men who wrote books about all the combat and all that sort of thing kind of forgot them. And they don't deserve to be forgotten. You know , my mother , they were all quite reluctant , as many war veterans are , to discuss it. And I had to picket her to find anything out as a kid. And , you know , the women from her generation are gone. And the miracle of this book was that the woman who drove the truck , two and a half ton truck , GMC truck with a galley built on the back , a huge monster six wheel drive , six by , and the galley in the back had coffee makers , water tanks , cups , saucers , a donut making machine , a deep fryer and a record player. And they could play the hits for the boys. And they ended up , of course , driving right into the thick of things. My mother's truck landed on Utah Beach. They drove all over France and Normandy in general , but all across France they took part in the liberation of France.

S1: And your mother and so many others did so much more than just deliver donuts and coffee. For instance , she was part of the liberation of one of the most notorious concentration camps at the end of the war.

S2: My mother had a war chest. She the army had given each of them , even though they were in the Red Cross , not the army , but they had given each of the women a footlocker , and they'd each been given a rank of of an officer in case they were captured to try to prevent torture or whatever. And I was ordered never to open the footlocker. When we first came out at T one , we lived in Logan Heights , and she would go to work every day taking the bus. And she told me , don't go into mother's trunk. And of course I promised No , mom , I wouldn't. I was only the third grade , you know , maybe fourth. And one day when she went to work , I opened it , and I found the archive of Buchenwald photographs. She had taken many nude , tortured shot bodies or starved to death bodies on the ground. Needless to say , that needed an explanation. I'd never seen anything like that , so that opened it a bit because she needed to sit me down and try to make me understand. And even at that early age , I knew something was really awful in her past. And she told me then that she took pictures of those people because she'd never seen anything like it and she wanted to leave a record. And then she became ashamed that she was taking those photographs. So she stopped and she told me she spent the rest of her life ashamed that she didn't take more pictures.


S2: It was beautiful , haunting. We thanks to the previous books , we're able to go several times to Europe and follow her path , drive the roads through Germany all the way to Buchenwald , you know , go to where she lived in London to see Copenhagen , to see all these things. And that was amazing. And the other part of it. Um , is her her partner in crime , her truck driver , Jill. We thought was dead because everybody had passed away or was about to. And we found miraculously that Jill not only was still alive , my mother's best friend and her truck driver , but she lived an hour and a half away from our house , which didn't seem possible. And Jill was unlike my mother , and that she wasn't consumed by sort of horrors of what had happened. She was a much more practical than my mother. And and her wits were razor sharp. She was 94 when we met her. She died at 102. And we spent many , many , many , many , many days with her in between during those years. And she taught us so much. Um , I've told this story to some reporters , but this may explain some of it to you. So we found her. We went to see her. She let us into her apartment and on the wall. It was a framed picture of my mother. She'd had it there ever since the war had ended , and my mother vanished in 1954. And I was staring at this photograph. She looked beautiful. She was young. And Jill said to me , You know , I drove the truck , but your mother brought the joy and it just froze me on the spot. I thought , there is my mom , 27 years old , at the height of her powers , looking like a 40s , movie star taking care of her boys under fire. And she brought the joy. It was. It was , uh. You know , any writer would would pay money to get that kind of a writing prompt. And I saw my mother for the first time think.

S1: You're listening to Midday Edition on Kpbs , and I'm speaking with author Luis Alberto Urrea about his latest novel , Good Night , Irene. You know , I would imagine that all the research involved was an enormous and emotional undertaking.

S2: My mother died in 1990. And , you know , I've been I've been haunted by her pain , by her isolation and so forth and haunted by her good moments. You know , as as I got closer to this character. Of course , it's not my mother. It's a novel. This is a character named Irene. But and and I cheated by having my actual mother and the actual Jill sometimes play cards with Irene or drive by in their own truck. Just maybe to have my own psychological space between the actual woman , my mom and this invented woman that could take on experiences and so forth that other women had had. I tried to I tried to honor the experience as a whole and distill it down , but there were a lot of challenges. But I've got to say , aside from wanting to do right by the soul of your departed mother and then all of her companions , it was the absolute astonishment to to follow in her footsteps , quite literally. You know , we we we saw the house that she lived in , in England. That was a 15th century house with a thatched roof. And it was still there. And to take my daughter , who never met her grandmother and to point up at a window we have a picture of that's actually in the book of my mother looking out of the window. And Jill had told us she's looking up because we were watching the bombers fly over as they left the airbase to have my daughter see her grandmother , young and so pretty and in this dreamy pose and then walk in her footsteps and to watch her try to calculate , how could my grandmother have been here at Buchenwald ? How , you know , and you start to see with this young woman's eyes that this woman was a hero , actually a war hero , not just grandma , not just mom , but someone who risked everything to do right by her country. And so , you know , that was not even a challenge. But I think that was an evolution for me as as as we progressed working on this. And I you know , I've worked on it a very long time , and I wrote it at least four different times. And the first three never worked. And then all of a sudden something clicked.

S1: You know , something you mentioned. I want to talk about more.

S2: I did. But I. I wanted I wanted to you know , I wanted to write honestly , you know , I wanted to write the kind of novel that she would have appreciated. You know , she loved Hemingway. She loved Fitzgerald , and she loved Michener. And I thought , yeah , I want to write sort of an old style American novel that she might have appreciated. And I , I did feel that responsibility , of course , but I was responsible to every other veteran , you know what I mean ? I was I felt responsible to to everyone who's been touched by service or has been in harm's way. And I kept thinking about Stephen Crane , who had not been in combat. And when Red Badge of Courage was published and he got so much acclaim , he wrote to , I believe it was a family member and said , I got it right , exclamation point. I did not want to get this wrong. And , you know , the judging from the veterans who've already been in touch with all of us in the family , it's it turned out to be a great thing for me. But , you know , service is service and borders are borders. It doesn't have to be about the Mexican border. I always feel that we are separated by so many borders. And one of the things that was a driving force for me was the recent political troubles in the United States. And I thought it was kind of patriotic to say , let's look at what it meant in this country to be an American. Let's think about this. You know , we would we pull together now in face of a world war. I don't know. I hope so.

S1: I've been speaking with author Luis Alberto Urrea. Luis , thank you so much for such a remarkable story and for taking the time. Time to talk with us today.

S2: Thank you. It's so cool to talk to the hometown station.

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Luis Alberto Urrea
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Luis Alberto Urrea

In his latest novel, author Luis Alberto Urrea explores the overlooked history of the so-called "doughnut dollies" — a group of female Red Cross workers during the Second World War.

Urrea's mother was one of those workers, and his exploration of her story and the story of so many others, set him on a deeply personal journey through history.


Luis Alberto Urrea, author