I was thrilled to take part in a wonderful event!
Pulitzer Prize finalist Luis Alberto Uurea came through Spokane, WA, on tour publicizing his newest book Good Night, Irene.
Very soon after starting to read this novel, I wished that I had written it, or rather, written a nonfiction book about the Donut Dollies of World War II. These women served coffee, donuts and a slice of home to soldiers on the front lines of battle.
I could not have written this book because Luis Alberto Uurea based it on the true-life experiences of his mother, Phyllis Irene McLaughlin, who traveled across Europe with Patton's army. It's a great adventure story of women's strength, friendship and sacrifice.
The fictional account follows closely the actual service route traveled by Phyllis and her
partners Jill Pitts and Helen Anderson in the clubmobile Cheyanne. They saw Utah Beach, shortly after D-Day, skirmishes across France, where right in the middle of the Battle of Bastogne and the horrors of the Buchenwald death camp.
After reading the book, I had the honor of interviewing the author on stage for The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages book club last week at the Bing Crosby Theater in downtown Spokane. Read more about that night here...
The first Red Cross Clubmobile arrived in France just days after the D-Day invasion, and that summer, 80 of the modified two-and-a-half-ton GMC trucks trundled across the countryside serving the troops, not just refreshments, but music, laughter and dancing.
In their training before leaving the US, the women were taught how to let the soldiers win at board games, talk about baseball and provoke a smile. Over months at war, they became trustworthy listeners, as soldiers took them aside to confess broken hearts, or fear, or shame or guilt...whatever they had to get off their chest and had no one else they could talk to in the middle of a war.
During WWII, the women hated being called Donut Dollies, but since then, as their contributions to the war effort become more well-known and honored, the name had gained a deeper meaning. And clubmobilers, their official name, is so awkward.
Not unusual for the Red Cross women to find themselves behind enemy lines, as did Luis's mother, who hid in a barn covered with hay, while first German and then Russian soldiers attacked local women. She listened all night to their screams, so terrified, she prayed the soldiers would stay busy and not find her.
Luis said she could not forgive herself for that, and it became the root of nightmares later in life. Many nights as a teen, he was unable to sleep, hearing his mother's nightmares, her crying and yelling through the night.
"And it was not often what she’d seen but what she had heard. And I think that’s what damned her. I think that’s what she heard at night when she tried to sleep,” Luis told me.
Phyllis was serious injured at the end of the war, and suffered from physical pain along with what we now understand is Post Traumatic Stress.
Luis Alberto Uurea, is the author of more than twenty books including fiction, nonfiction and poetry, planned to write a nonfiction book on his mom's wartime experience until he found that fire had destroyed the WWII records. The project languished until he discovered (Jill Pitts) Knappenberger lived not a two-hour drive away. On a visit he discovered the 95-year-old had a great memory and a trove of letters, diaries and photos to supplement those of his mother.
"That's when the novel was born," he said.
In the novel, the character Irene is modeled on Phyllis and the character Dorothy stands in for Jill. But have hearing the author talk about the two women, it's difficult for me to separate the women from the characters in the story.
Friendship is at the crux of the novel. Two women from very different backgrounds, one from New York City, the other an Indiana farm woman, rub elbows in a tiny kitchen on wheels for days on end. At night they often sleep side by side under the truck because they are safer there if a bomb hits the truck.
The women enjoyed their freedom far from home, had hilarious fun and faced the dangers of battle unarmed. Their friendship is forged in steel the day the Dorothy says to Irene:
"I think about my duty...and I think about you. We are all we have right now. You and me. I think about us getting through this...I will walk through fire for you. I need to know you will do the same for me...this is our story."
Irene embraced her friend. The two held each other, and though Irene wanted to speak, she could not. She trusted no words. But she trusted Dorothy to know what was true." pp. 149-150.
Below, to give you a picture, is the crew and driver of the Magnolia clubmobile "somewhere in Europe." They hauled their own water and gas tanks, regularly refilled by Army suppliers.
Thanks to Wendy over at the The Butterfly Balcony, I have a few more photos showing the women in action.
More than 7,000 young women volunteered for service with the Red Cross during World War II. One enticement for some was that, unlike the Woman's Army and Navy corps, they were guaranteed service overseas.
At the recent event in Spokane Luis Alberto Urrea said Good Night, Irene, "means “everything to me. I’ve put everything I know as a writer into it, and I’m comfortable knowing that I can’t reach this height again.”
I'm fascinated to discover little-known history, stories of people and events that provide a new perspective on why and how things happened, new voices that haven't been heard, insight into how the past brought us here today, and how it might guide us to a better future.
I also post here about my books and feature other authors and their books on compelling and important historical topics.
Occasionally, I share what makes me happy, pictures of my garden, recipes I've made, events I've attended, people I've met. I'm always happy to hear from readers in the blog comments, by email or social media.