Few delights bring as much comfort as good food, so imagine how cheering a good cup of coffee and a fresh donut would have been to soldiers on the front lines in World War II. But also imagine how women recruited to serve food to soldiers might view the value of their contribution when they see the life-and-death sacrifices those men had to make. That’s one of the animating conflicts in the heartfelt novel Good Night, Irene from Pulitzer Prize finalist Luis Alberto Urrea.
In October 1943, 25-year-old Irene Woodward leaves New York City to become a “recreation worker” for the American Red Cross. She is escaping her planned marriage to the son of a political family, an arrangement she’d accepted only because her family wanted the connections. Marriage, however, was not for Irene, especially not to a political scion who left bruises on her arm.
Irene volunteers at one of the Red Cross’ Clubmobiles, serving those cups of coffee and donuts. Among the pejoratively named “Donut Dollies”—one of many examples of unabashed sexism the women face—she meets Dorothy Dunford, who has fled Indianapolis for comparable reasons.
Urrea briskly dramatizes the women’s boot camp and eventual passage to Liverpool, England, the first of many stops where they serve refreshments to flirting soldiers. Such respites, however, are tragically brief, which Irene and Dorothy learn when bullets strike the roof of their train. That’s just the first of many direct encounters with the reality of war, and things get considerably grislier as the novel takes its protagonists through major conflicts from the D-Day invasion to the Battle of the Bulge.
Interspersed among scenes of combat are personal stories involving Irene, Dorothy and the service people they encounter, including an American pilot nicknamed Handyman, with whom Irene falls in love. Although such romantic moments are lackluster, the combat sequences are a thrill to read. Urrea writes memorable descriptions of war that strike the reader with devastating immediacy, such as when soldiers flirt with Irene one moment and die bleeding in the street seconds later. Good Night, Irene is strongest when Urrea shows the toll that war exacts from everyone involved. “It can’t be about killing,” Dorothy says to Irene. “It has to be about living. Saving even one life.” As Urrea reminds us, few things bring as much reassurance as people in wartime who understand the true meaning of valor.