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"Good Night, Irene" | Reviewed by Bill Schwab

Luis Urrea’s mother, Phyllis McLaughlin, joined the American Red Cross in 1943 as a volunteer in the Clubmobile Corps. She was one of 250 women who served donuts, coffee, and conversation to General Patton's Third Army from a 14’ GMC military truck in France, Belgium, and Germany. Drawing on his mother's journals, scrapbooks, and other odds and ends of historical information that survived the Clubmobile corps, Urrea has written a novel that pays tribute to his mother and the “Clubmobilers” whose World War II service has largely been forgotten.

The protagonists in this story are Irene Woodward and Dorothy Dunford. New Yorker Irene joins the Red Cross to escape an abusive fiancé and a rapacious stepfather. She imagines her service will be spent in the forests of Europe engaging in one of her favorite pastimes: “Ambling. Filling notebooks with her own great thoughts. Perhaps some smoke drifting through the trees.”  But her naivete is soon exploded by reality.

Arriving in France after D-Day, she makes quick friends with her coworker Dorothy, a tall blonde Indiana farm girl who lost both of her parents and whose brother was killed at Pearl Harbor. Dorothy is eager to turn the page on her past and establish a new life.

Together the women learn to become the “Donut Dollies” on the Rapid City, a 2 1/2 ton vehicle stocked with two coffee urns, a doughnut machine, water tanks, a Victrola with stacks of records, and rifle clips. Irene recalls, “The truck was like a little B17. Everything in its place. Bomb loads of doughnuts in the racks, all arranged vertically, waiting to be delivered.”

The two friends witness many horrors of war first-hand, from bombs to snipers to death camps. They see the mass killings at The Battle of the Bulge and the starved bodies of prisoners released from Buchenwald. The two play no small part in improving the morale of the war-weary soldiers.

The import of their trivial-looking job becomes clearer to them as the war ensues. They soon become aware that their faces, their voices, and their sendoffs often the final personal commendation from their homeland. Much more than “Donut Dollies,” Irene and Dorothy become caregivers, flirts, substitute moms, girlfriends, and wives, often living in harm’s way like the soldiers.

Urrea has chronicled an overlooked story of heroic women in World War II. His account neither avoids the indiscriminate violence inflicted by the GIs, nor the traumas endured by those who survived the warfare. The smartly written novel depicts courageous acts, deadly clashes, curious details, and intriguing twists that make it a page-turner. This is an elegantly written homage to Urrea’s mother and to the Red Cross Clubmobile corps.

About the author: Luis Alberto Urrea is the author of fiction, nonfiction, and poetry, including best sellers “The Hummingbird's Daughter” and “The House of Broken Angels” which was a National Book Critics Circle Award finalist.




 

 

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