Luis Alberto Urrea on his new novel 'Good Night, Irene
SCOTT SIMON, HOST:
Luis Alberto Urrea, please tell us about the photo, three women smiling, at the front of your new novel, "Good Night, Irene."
LUIS ALBERTO URREA: Well, my mother was in Clubmobile corps for the Red Cross during World War II, and they were known in the vernacular as Donut Dollies. And these women drove 2 1/2-ton GMC trucks with galleys on the back with the doughnut cookers and coffee machines and record players all along Patton's route with the Third Army, but have been forgotten by history. So in honor of my mother and her best friend, Jill, who drove the truck, I decided to bring them back.
SIMON: Luis Alberto Urrea, who's been a finalist for the Pulitzer Prize in nonfiction, turned to fiction to tell the story inspired by his mother, Phyllis McLaughlin, and her friends. He joins us now. Luis, thanks so much for being with us.
URREA: Thank you, sir.
SIMON: The lead characters of your novel, Irene, kind of your mother...
SIMON: ...And Dorothy, kind of Jill...
SIMON: They have different backgrounds, but they shared the hazards of the front lines, didn't they?
URREA: Oh, they certainly did. Yeah. They couldn't have been more different. You know, my mother was a Manhattan socialite, had a kind of a Greer Garson obsession. You know, she thought she was a '40s movie star. She called everyone darling. And Jill was a very realistic Hoosier woman, you know, from Indiana, very intelligent. And, you know, I think they became each other's rolling sanctuary under duress.
SIMON: You're a great novelist when you've turned your hand to fiction, and, you know, you should write a great novel. But even if you wanted to make this a nonfiction story, you found that would have been difficult.
URREA: Yeah. I couldn't have done it because the records are gone. The records building the Red Cross had with all of the Clubmobile corps information burned down, I believe, in the early '70s. And also, most if not all of the World War II Donut Dollies have passed on. So we thought Jill was dead. My mother had suffered a terrible, at the end of the war, wounding, and it involved an awful crash in the Bavarian Alps off the side of a cliff. And the only thing she would say about it is we never found the other girl. And I thought, the other girl? That must have been her. It must have been Jill, this darling Jill she always talked about. And it wasn't. You know, as we were researching, we found materials written by Jill, Jill Pitts Knappenberger. And through some investigation, we found that she was alive. She was 94 at the time. And when she got on the phone with me, she said, you must come see me, but don't wait until I turn 95, if you catch my drift.
SIMON: Oh, my gosh.
URREA: And so I thought, I'm already in love with this woman. We went down there, and when she led us in the house, there was a portrait of my mom on the wall looking like a '40s movie star. And she said the thing that launched the book. She said, I drove the truck, but your mother brought the joy.
SIMON: Let me ask you to talk about some of the toughest stuff...
SIMON: ...The hell that, indeed, they went through...
SIMON: ...Because the young women in the Clubmobile were at the front lines. They were part confessor. They were crushes. They were objects of desire. They were maternal substitutes.
SIMON: A lot to carry.
URREA: I think it was too much, honestly. The way I came into this story was twofold. One was my mother's nightmares. She had terrible nightmares, and she was scarred from her wounding at the end of the war. Her legs were - her upper legs were just torn apart. But the other thing was that she had an Army footlocker that the Army provided her, even though she was Red Cross, and within it was stuff that she had brought back from the war. And I had strict orders never to open it. And you know what it's like being a boy. You know, as soon as Mom's gone, you open the trunk. And inside was a folio of photos she had taken at Buchenwald. Patton asked them to accompany them to liberate Buchenwald. They didn't know what they were getting into. And she took photographs of the corpses on the ground, and she told me, I took those pictures until I grew ashamed of taking those pictures. And she said, but I have been ashamed every day of my life since that I didn't keep taking pictures, that I stopped. I don't think they expected to be at the front lines.
URREA: So, yeah, they saw everything, and they were, I think, expected to keep the boys hopeful, you know, give them a taste of home, so, of course, coffee and donuts. They passed out chewing gum. They passed out candy bars. They sometimes brought mail. You know, with that little record player, they would play the hits for them over the loudspeaker. And they were fully aware that many of those boys that they were flirting with or feeding, they would never see again, that they might be the last friendly faces those boys ever saw. And I think the toll of that was quite heavy.
SIMON: I mean, you carry that forever, don't you?
URREA: There are different responses, which I find interesting. My mother was kind of destroyed by it, and I think it drove her mad by the end of her life. Jill was a completely different creature, had it together. You know, like I said, we met her when she was 94. She lived to 102, and she was just a fountain of information. And when she got overwhelmed, which she did sometimes, she would put her hand over her eyes and say, I'm going to be sad now. And it lasted 30 seconds, 40 seconds, and then she'd put her hand down and go on. She had everything put in its place, and my mother couldn't keep it contained.
SIMON: What do you hope readers of this fine novel will learn from your characters, thinly described your mother and her friend?
URREA: The response of women so far has been overwhelming and beautiful and heartbreaking. And, you know, I just - I keep telling everybody our worst sin, I think, is writing Mom off, writing Granny off, writing Aunt Eva off. And when I talk to young folks, I tell them, your mother keeps telling you that dang story you're so sick of hearing. One day, she will be gone, and you will wish to God you'd paid attention because you've let that piece of important history disappear. So, you know, I guess just a thank-you and a tribute to these women who shouldn't be forgotten.
SIMON: Luis Alberto Urrea - his novel, "Good Night, Irene" - Luis, thank you so much for being with us.
URREA: Thank you, Scott. It's always a privilege to talk to you. Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.