Luis Alberto Urrea honors mother’s WWII service in ‘Good Night, Irene’
Rick Steves takes audience on musical journey with Boston Pops shows
Luis Alberto Urrea is no stranger to historical fiction. The author earned rave reviews for his 2005 novel “The Hummingbird’s Daughter,” which told the story of his great-aunt, Teresita Urrea, the legendary 19th-century curandera, or healer, and folk hero known as the “Saint of Cabora.” A sequel to the novel, called “Queen of America,” was published six years later; it followed Teresita fleeing Mexico for the U.S., where she meets a variety of Americans and immigrants near the turn of the 20th century.
Urrea turned to his family history again for his latest novel, “Good Night, Irene,” just published by Little, Brown. The book is inspired by his mother, Phyllis McLaughlin, who served in the Red Cross Clubmobile Service in World War II. The “Donut Dollies” followed American troops around Europe, driving trucks that offered the soldiers comfort in the form of hot coffee and freshly made treats.
“Good Night, Irene” follows Irene Woodward, a New Yorker who leaves her abusive fiancé and volunteers with the Donut Dollies, where she forms a fast friendship with Dorothy Dunford, a sharp-witted woman from the Midwest. The two look out for each other as they try to dodge the dangers of war while keeping the soldiers fed and cared for.
“My mom was the only American in my entire family,” says Urrea, who was born in Tijuana and grew up in the San Diego area. “She would always foist great American authors on me, even when I was a little kid. I owe my writing life to her.”
Urrea answered questions about the book via telephone from Naperville, Illinois, where he lives. The interview has been edited for length and clarity.
QWhen did you decide you wanted to write a novel based on her experiences during the war?
I was talking to my wife, Cindy, about my mom one night. I said, “I wish you’d met my mom. You two would’ve gotten along.” And she said, “Tell me about Phyllis.” I told her she was a Donut Dolly, and she said, “What is that? I said, “You know, the Red Cross women that went into World War II and made donuts in big trucks and drove around with the soldiers, and for part of it followed Patton.” And she just yelled, “What?” It was that cry of “What?” that got me going.
When you were growing up, did your mom talk about her service?
She would talk, but only so much. One thing she would talk about was her Jeep crash. And that also was very sketchy. She woke up in a pool of her own blood. She was torn apart, and she was screaming. She could see the vehicle down the hill, burning. She heard people, and they were shining their lights down at her, and she thought she was going to be killed. She thought, “It’s over. I can’t even run.” And she prayed there, kneeling in the mud as they came down, and then she heard this New York accent saying, “Jesus, it’s goils.”
They field-dressed her, made slings out of their shirts, and took her on their backs and climbed up a mountain, and then walked her six miles back to one of the field hospitals, a little tent hospital mass unit. She was sutured and wired back together, but still completely physically devastated. So those little things would slip through but not much else.
: You were able to meet your mom’s best friend during the war, Jill.
My wife and I found among my mom’s things a remembrance of war by Jill Pitts Knappenberger. We thought, “Where did this come from?” On the back, there was an old address label from Champaign-Urbana, Illinois. Cindy and I live in Naperville, west of Chicago. And I thought, “It’s not possible that Jill lived 90 minutes away from our house. That’s not possible.” And Cindy said, “Well, let’s try this.” She sent a card to the address. Jill had lived in the same apartment since the late 1940s. She wrote back immediately and then called.
She said to me, “Luis, but you must come down and see me as soon as possible. And don’t try to wait until I turn 95, if you catch my drift.” [Laughs.] And I thought, “Oh, crap. I’m in love already.” So the next day we drive down there, and this old woman opens the door to this apartment. It was 1944 inside the apartment still. She’d kept a picture of my mother on her wall. I’m standing there staring at it, and Jill said, “Luis, I drove the truck, but your mother brought the joy.”
Jill had it together. The only time she would show emotion, she would warn you; she’d say, “I’m going to be sad now.” And then she would put her hand over her eyes for a second and put it down and keep talking. That woman had an iron grip. I don’t know if she suffered or not. She seemed full of joy and pride. She was so proud of what they had done.
The other research you did from this book had to be extensive.
Cindy and I went down to New Orleans to the National World War II Museum. The docent there was super kind. For example, there were only black and white photographs of Donut Dollies in World War II, and I always thought the uniforms were probably some sort of drab olive or brown. The docent told us that the museum had some of their uniforms, and took us back and pulled them down. The really haunting thing is they have cards with the names of the women who donated them. Not women I had heard of. But the uniforms are a beautiful teal blue. That was Eisenhower’s doing. He had the uniforms made bespoke by tailors in London, and they were elegant and beautiful.
Q Writing this book had to be pretty emotional, I’m guessing.
This thing cost me so much. It was just so painful, man. You know, you don’t understand your own mom. And then you’re confronted with the things that made her this person. I feel like I’m some kind of evangelist for moms and old women right now to tell people, Stop ignoring them and stop resenting them. We don’t know what they went through.
Rick Steves’ first trip to Europe wasn’t about history or food or culture. It was about music.
“My father, who was a piano tuner, decided to import pianos from Europe,” Steves told the Boston Herald. “So my very first trip, when I was 14 years old, was to see the piano factories in Germany.”
If you watch his public television travel series, “Rick Steves’ Europe,” you notice that between the castles and cuisine, there’s a lot of music: flamenco from Spain, fado from Portugal, Italian operas.
Not a big slice of the program, music will take center stage when the Boston Pops presents “Rick Steves’ Europe: A Symphonic Journey” on June 8 and 9.
Steves has deep affection for all kinds of music (he’s only had two jobs in his life, tour guide and piano teacher).
His collaboration with Pops will focus on European classical music from the Romantic era, the age of Verdi, Wagner and Beethoven.
“I love Romanticism and I love national struggles,” he said. “It’s cool that music, Romantic music, was a cheerleader for the national struggles that were going on in Europe in the late 1800s… What we do is drop down in seven different countries and we get some context, what was going on when Wagner was doing that, or Verdi was doing that, or (Czech composer Bedrich) Smetena was doing that, or (Norwegian composer Edvard) Grieg was doing this.”
Each of the countries touched upon were struggling for independence at the time, or as Steves puts it, “the countries were trying to get their act together.”
“Romanticism champions the underdogs, liberty, equality, fraternity,” he said. “We’re going to Vienna and hear the Strauss waltzes, then we’re going to go to Norway and hear ‘Peer Gynt’. It’s a fun exercise to get away from the ethnocentric approach to music and to celebrate music through the emotions of different cultures and understand what was going on in this period that meant so much to these people.”
“As a tour guide, my challenge is to set this up in two or three minutes before each piece,” he added. “The quintessential challenge and responsibility of a tour guide is to give context to the art.”
Steves will play MC for the night, while the Pops will perform classics and more obscure pieces alongside stunning videos of Europe from Steves’ TV shows.
It’s part history lesson, part travel show, part artistic journey.
“It’s one thing to see the visuals and one thing to listen to the music,” he said. “But if you can put the visual with the music, preceded by context that I get to provide as tour guide, it’s a beautiful marriage.”
Like so much of Steves’ work, the concert will be a gentle nudge into the unfamiliar, a gateway into the amazing world of classical music, and European history, and geography, and architecture, and on and on.
For tickets and details, visit bso.org.