Written by Luis Alberto Urrea, the novel is loosely based on his mother’s experiences in World War II as a “Donut Dollie.” His mom, known as Phyllis McLaughlin then and later as Phyllis de Urrea, served with the American Red Cross in Clubmobile Cheyenne where she and two other women made donuts and coffee for the soldiers serving on the frontlines. Phyllis (or “Phyl”) is a very minor character in the book, making several cameo appearances.
This is the story: It’s 1943. Irene Woodward is a 25-year-old New York City socialite engaged to the son of a wealthy and prominent political family. But he’s far from ideal as he has this unforgivable habit of hitting her. She does the only thing she can think of to escape: Throws her engagement ring down a storm drain and hops a train to Washington, D.C. to join the American Red Cross as a Donut Dollie on the frontlines of the war. She is assigned to work with Dorothy Dunford, a tall, gangly Indiana farmgirl whose brother died in the Pacific Theater of the war, whose father died of throat cancer, and whose mother died of heartbreak. Dorothy is filled with hurt and rage and wants to extract revenge for her brother’s death.
Irene and Dorothy are shipped to England first and then Europe on the Western Front. Their job in the Clubmobile Rapid City—a 14-foot GMC military truck—is to pass out coffee and donuts, but also to listen to the soldiers when they need to talk, joke with them, hug them, and give them a taste of home. This is the story of Irene and Dorothy’s friendship, experiences, romances, heartbreak, and shocking secrets as they serve in General Patton’s 3rd Army. Irene falls in love with a handsome American fighter pilot named Hans (and nicknamed Handyman) and dares to imagine a life together after the war. But first, they must all survive.
Urrea is an incredibly talented writer, and this is especially true in his vivid, bold, and wrenching descriptions of the liberation of the Buchenwald concentration camp, the Battle of the Bulge, and the harrowing and horrific evils of war. The sounds, the sights, the smells—it’s all here. Extraordinary…truly extraordinary.
And the ending? It’s magnificent. I wept tears of sadness and joy.
This masterful and brilliant World War II story is told from a different point of view than usual about the little-known women who made donuts but doubled as heroines. It is an adventure story. It is a romance. But most of all, it is imaginative, authentic, and haunting.