Review | Luis Alberto Urrea discovers the wartime magic of the ‘Donut Dollies’

In the winter of 2021, I learned about a Vietnam War veteran who had searched for half a century to find two Red Cross workers who had spent just a few hours with him — strolling, chatting, having lunch — at his remote base outside Saigon during the war.

The vet, Jim Roberts, had snapped quick photos of the young women and was on this quest simply because he wanted to thank them. At first, I found this hard to comprehend. All that, after just a few hours of small talk?

But the more I discovered about the women, who were part of a group with roots in World War II known affectionately as “Donut Dollies,” the more it made sense. For soldiers mired in despair and scarred, both emotionally and physically, the sounds of these women’s American voices, the silly talent shows they sometimes led and the casual conversations they initiated lent a sense of normalcy and offered a brief respite from the surreal nightmare they were living.

After 50 years, the mystery of these Vietnam War photos of ‘Donut Dollies’ is solved

The magic of these brief encounters is captured beautifully in “Good Night, Irene,” a new novel by Luis Alberto Urrea, a prolific writer of fiction and nonfiction best known for his gripping chronicles set along the U.S.-Mexico border, including the Pulitzer finalist “The Devil’s Highway: A True Story.” “Good Night, Irene” was inspired by the experiences of Urrea’s mother, Phyllis de Urrea, who served in the Red Cross’s “Clubmobile Corps,” which dispatched young women to the European war theater in trucks equipped with doughnut-making machines, hence “Donut Dollies.” (By the time of the Vietnam War, the women had stopped making doughnuts, but the nickname stuck.)

With each turn of the page, a feeling builds that Urrea is on his own quest, a decades-long journey to fill in the blanks of a period in his family history that his mother — struggling with undiagnosed post-traumatic stress disorder — did not want to revisit. When Urrea’s mother died, in 1990, he was able to sift through her journals and scrapbooks, which unspooled the time she’d spent traveling with George S. Patton’s Third Army through France, Belgium and Germany, and ultimately to the concentration camp at Buchenwald.

The book, which Urrea stresses is a work of fiction, rather than a biography, follows Irene Woodward and Dorothy Dunford as they drive into dangerous battleground zones across Europe in a rattletrap 2½-ton mobile doughnut-making truck named the Rapid City. Irene has signed up to escape a physically abusive romantic relationship on Staten Island; Dorothy is extracting herself from the misery and heartbreak of deepening rural poverty in Indiana. Amid war, they find purpose.

“Wherever they went, they were stars,” Urrea writes. “Every G.I. wanted the Donut Dolly treatment. Just a flirt. A baseball score. Some jokes. A wink. They all dreamed of a dance. They drank the women’s American accents like beer.”

Urrea, who also has published poetry, has a gift for writing heart-pounding action scenes that are also lyrical. A bombed hotel “wept dust.” Roofs “come apart like leaves in an upward wind.” A wounded soldier cups his hands to try to catch blood gushing from his forehead, “as if he were in prayer.”

Dead Men Walking — ‘The Devil’s Highway: A True Story,’ by Luis Alberto Urrea

Irene and Dorothy fill an almost sacred void. As the fighter pilots prepare to launch on secret missions, the two women are there, working fast to distribute coffee and doughnuts, which they call “sinkers.” They understand that the words they exchange in those pre-dawn hours may be among the last casual banter the pilots ever hear.

“Dorothy took to calling these mornings ‘Church,’ and they did feel like religious services, with the men heading into peril, to do deadly work, and everyone knowing but not acknowledging that they might never return,” Urrea writes.

In moments like that one, a reader can’t help but reflect on the roles that so many Americans have played in our decades of almost constant war — not just the men and women who wield the weapons and stitch the wounds, but also those who ease the mental strain. They, too, are worthy of our thanks.

The Dorothy and Irene of Urrea’s book are a kind of proto-version of those heroes, long before terms such as PTSD were so deeply embedded in our vernacular, as they have been in the aftermath of wars in Afghanistan and Iraq. Dorothy and Irene become both psychologists and confessors, tending to the young man pained and confused because he’d stomped to death a civilian, the soldier contemplating killing himself because his hands would not stop shaking and he couldn’t sleep, the captain who’d gotten a Dear John letter from his wife, cruelly scented with Chanel No. 5.

Those fleeting moments of kindness become so frequent that they blur in the minds of Dorothy and Irene. But not in the minds of the men whose lives they touched, such as the frightened soldier who wrote them a letter: “You won’t remember me, but I never forget you.”

Manuel Roig-Franzia is a Washington Post staff writer.

Little, Brown. 416 pp. $29

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