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Spokane, Washington  Est. May 19, 1883

‘They were the embodiment of home’: Author Luis Alberto Urrea reflects on his mother’s courageous WWII service as ‘Doughnut Dolly’

Author Luis Alberto Urrea answers questions from author Mary Cronk Farrell during the Northwest Passages VIP Event at the Bing Crosby Theater on Thursday.  (Kathy Plonka/The Spokesman-Review)

As a child, Luis Alberto Urrea gleaned bits of information from his mother’s World War II service as a “Doughnut Dolly.”

Some of it was lighthearted, like when he recalled his mother, Phyllis McLaughlin, calling famed Gen. George Patton “a very naughty lad.”

Other stories, like her recollections of the Nazi concentration camp Buchenwald, were frightening.

“Some of it was charming and some of it was horrifying,” Urrea said.

Urrea, a Pulitzer Prize finalist for his book “The Devil’s Highway,” spoke about his newest book, “Good Night, Irene,” at The Spokesman-Review’s Northwest Passages book club event Thursday night at the Bing Crosby Theater in downtown Spokane.

The book is inspired by McLaughlin’s Red Cross service as a “Clubmobiler” in World War II. The “Clubmobile” was a large group of women that joined Patton’s troops through Europe, witnessing the horrors of war and the liberation of Buchenwald.

Urrea, 67, used McLaughlin’s scrapbooks and letters to write the book about his mother, whose middle name is “Irene.”

The “Doughnut Dollies” whipped up donuts and coffee and played music records for weary soldiers from inside a 2½-ton GMC truck. Sometimes, the women danced, Urrea said.

“The ladies were home,” he said. “They were the embodiment of home.”

Urrea said the women could make thousands of donuts a day.

“These women were hilarious … They were wild women, set free, set free on the land to be heroes and to love each other,” Urrea said.

But, it wasn’t all fun and games.

He said his mother nearly died at the end of her service. By the time Urrea started middle school, his mother’s nightmares started, and she could be heard crying and yelling at night.

“One of the things that I think destroyed her finally was the things that gave her nightmares,” he said. “They got worse and worse and worse. 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.”

Urrea has authored about 20 books, including poetry, fiction and nonfiction . He said “Good Night, Irene” means “everything” to him.

“I’ve put everything I know as a writer into it, he said.

“I’m comfortable knowing that I can’t reach this height again,” Urrea said. “It’s OK, because I have other things to write.”