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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

Northwest Passages: Luis Alberto Urrea will talk ‘Good Night, Irene,’ the new novel inspired by his mother’s WWII service

Author Luis Alberto Urrea sits in front of a historic photo Wednesday in the Davenport Hotel lobby.  (Jesse Tinsley/THE SPOKESMAN-REVIEW)
By Ignacio Cowles The Spokesman-Review

Accomplished author and Pulitzer Prize finalist Luis Alberto Urrea has based his entire career on bearing witness.

The Tijuana-born writer and poet of mixed heritage has spent decades creating vivid testimonies of life bridging the southern border between the United States and Mexico, and now war-torn Europe.

Urrea will discuss his latest work, “Good Night, Irene,” at a Northwest Passages book club event Thursday at 7 p.m. at the Bing Crosby Theater.

Urrea’s breakout story, “Father Returns from the Mountain,” was written as a way to process his father’s murder by Mexican police in 1977. His professor passed on the work to science fiction writer Ursula Le Guin, who then coached Urrea through his early career.

He’s borne witness to the plight of undocumented immigrants in his 2004 nonfiction “The Devil’s Highway: A True Story” on the Wellton 26, a group who became lost while crossing the border with 14 dying of the elements before rescuers arrived. He encountered pushback for his writings, saying, “the direct quote that charted my theory was a New York editor who said, ‘No one cares about starving Mexicans.’ And I thought, yeah, that’s why I’m writing this, because I want people to care.”

He witnessed his half-brother’s melancholic last birthday before dying of cancer, which was upended by the brother’s mother dying a week prior. This tragic but powerful experience resulted in his epic 2018 novel “The House of Broken Angels.”

In “Good Night, Irene,” he bears witness again, this time to the “Doughnut Dollies,” all-women volunteers of the American Red Cross Clubmobile Service who accompanied Patton’s troops as they liberated Western Europe in WWII. Their duty: to dole out doughnuts and coffee to weary GIs and to give them a small taste of home. They were often maternal figures and confidants on the frontlines, brightening soldiers’ spirits with conversation and card games between heated combat. Irene and Dorothy, the heroes of the story, dig themselves out of collapsed buildings and humor artillerymen on their odyssey through the western front.

Irene is a not-so-subtle surrogate for Urrea’s mother, Phyllis McLaughlin, who worked in the service during the war.

“Irene was my mother’s middle name,” he said with a smile.

A large portion of the personal information for the novel came from Dorothy inspiration Jill Pitts Knappenberger after his mother died. Knappenberger served in the so-called three-woman Clubmobile Cheyenne with Phyllis, and Urrea had initially believed she was killed in the conflict.

Phyllis was wounded in a car crash in the ending months of the war, which she never truly recovered from. Like many veterans, Urrea’s mother never spoke of her service. She kept an army trunk from the war but forbade her son to check its contents. Urrea did what any child would and, as a fourth grader, opened the box, discovering his mother’s pictures documenting the atrocities at the Buchenwald concentration camp, which Phyllis had seen accompanying the liberating troops.

As a child, he wasn’t able to understand his mother’s semi-visible struggle with what was most likely undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder.

“I just thought that’s what moms were like,” he said.

He said he saw a completely different side of her while researching her story, with soldiers’ letters singing his mother’s praises for her uplifting spirit and unforgettable eyes, a complete reversal from her somewhat stoic demeanor and frequent pain during his lifetime.

During the course of writing, he and his wife, Cindy, took four trips traveling his mother’s route during the war.

“The novel’s timeline is the same as my mother’s journey across Europe, from D.C., through England and Bastogne and eventually Buchenwald,” he said.

Urrea is no stranger to doing justice to his family’s history, which he put to words in his 2006 novel “The Hummingbird’s Daughter” and its sequel, “The Queen of America,” based on his relative Teresa Urrea. This is the first time he’s addressed his non-Mexicano side, though it’s not a permanent change. He says his next book, “Zebras in Tijuana,” will be a return to Mexico, as well as a relief from the years if not decades of intensive research his recent novels required.

“I can only do two deep serious ones in a row,” he said. “I’ve given all I got to make this.”

There are a number of connections between Urrea and Spokane, including his fervent enjoyment of Roast House coffee and friendship with Spokane native and Edgar Allen Poe Award-winning author Jess Walter, a fellow Pulitzer Prize finalist for his coverage of the Ruby Ridge siege in 1992, who plans to be in attendance.

“I can’t wait to make him the ‘third girl in the truck,’ ” Urrea said.

While traveling across the country for the book tour, the Urreas often have a ‘third girl in the truck,’ in a joking reference to the third girl in Clubmobile trucks, with authors and musicians joining them for a short period of their journey.