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The Beantown Girls
by Jane Healey

Published: 2019-02-05
Paperback : 365 pages
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An Amazon Charts and Washington Post bestseller.

A novel of love, courage, and danger unfolds as World War II’s brightest heroines—the best of friends—take on the front lines.

1944: Fiona Denning has her entire future planned out. She’ll work in city hall, marry her fiancé when he ...

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An Amazon Charts and Washington Post bestseller.

A novel of love, courage, and danger unfolds as World War II’s brightest heroines—the best of friends—take on the front lines.

1944: Fiona Denning has her entire future planned out. She’ll work in city hall, marry her fiancé when he returns from the war, and settle down in the Boston suburbs. But when her fiancé is reported missing after being shot down in Germany, Fiona’s long-held plans are shattered.

Determined to learn her fiancé’s fate, Fiona leaves Boston to volunteer overseas as a Red Cross Clubmobile girl, recruiting her two best friends to come along. There’s the outspoken Viviana, who is more than happy to quit her secretarial job for a taste of adventure. Then there’s Dottie, a shy music teacher whose melodious talents are sure to bring heart and hope to the boys on the front lines.

Chosen for their inner strength and outer charm, the trio isn’t prepared for the daunting challenges of war. But through it all come new friendships and romances, unforeseen dangers, and unexpected dreams. As the three friends begin to understand the real reasons they all came to the front, their courage and camaraderie will see them through some of the best and worst times of their lives.

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July 14, 1944

New York City

Dottie, Viv, and I stood together on the deck of the Queen Elizabeth, surrounded by a couple dozen other Red Cross workers and hundreds of US soldiers. The once-glamorous cruise ship, now painted a bland battleship gray for its current role as troop transporter, was making its final preparations for departure to Europe.

The three of us were enjoying the festive atmosphere as the people on the dock below waved up at the passengers shouting their final farewells to loved ones on board. We had said our good-byes to our families in Boston six weeks ago, but we waved and smiled back at the strangers wishing us well.

“I have to say, we all look pretty smart in these new uniforms,” Dottie said, adjusting her light-blue Red Cross cap and nodding at Viv and me with approval. “Fiona, the color brings out the gray in your eyes.”

“Thanks, Dottie,” I said. “I agree, they aren’t too bad.”

“Not too bad except for these sensible black shoes they recommended that we buy,” said Viv, looking down with a sour face. “They’re horrible. Zero fashion. But yes, the uniforms are surprisingly spiffy.”

“Sweetheart, you all look better than spiffy,” a soldier next to us said, staring at Dottie as he gave a whistle. His two friends nodded in agreement. They had to be fresh out of high school. So many of these newly minted GIs looked like they were playing dress-up in their fathers’ uniforms. Still, Dottie flushed a deep shade of pink and turned away.

“Oh, for God’s sake, Dottie, at least say thank you,” Viv whispered to her with a nudge. “She thanks you, honey,” Viv said to the soldier with a smile, and now he was the one blushing.

“She’s right,” I said. “That’s definitely not the last compliment you’re going to get from a soldier. You better get used to it.”

Dottie was about to reply, but an army band on the docks below struck up a raucous rendition of “Over There,” and a rowdy group on the other side of us started singing along so loudly that it was difficult to talk over the noise.

I looked up at the decks above ours, at the hundreds of men pressed against railings like we were, waving good-bye to the crowds. Jostling and laughing with each other, they were all hiding their nerves beneath bravado.

And that’s when I spotted my fiancé, Second Lieutenant Danny Barker, among the men on the deck above ours. My arms broke out in goose pimples despite the heat, and I felt a little faint. Tall and blond, he looked incredibly handsome in his US Army Air Force uniform. He was smiling and waving at the crowds below too, and it was all I could do not to scream his name and go running upstairs to him. I wanted to do it so badly my heart ached. But I held back calling to him, because deep down I knew. It wasn’t him. It couldn’t be. Danny Barker had been declared missing in action more than eight months ago, shot down in the skies over Germany.

The ship’s horn blasted our departure from the dock, and more soldiers joined in the singing. Dottie and Viv didn’t notice me gripping the rail of the ship with white knuckles as I tried to tether myself to reality. I was desperate to quell the feeling of panic that was bubbling up inside me. I shook my head back and forth, blinking a few times. When I looked up again, I realized that the soldier I could have sworn was Danny bore only a passing resemblance to him. He was tall and blond like Danny, but with sharp, angular features that were nothing like my fiancé’s.

It was a hot July day in New York City, and the ocean air was tainted with the smell of diesel, cigarettes, and cheap cologne. I don’t know if it was the humidity that made the atmosphere feel heavy or the emotions of the hundreds of soldiers on the ship with us, jumping up and down, yelling their final good-byes before heading off to war.

Some of the women in the crowds below had started to cry, clutching their handkerchiefs and straining to capture these last glimpses of their beloved sons, brothers, and sweethearts so they could remember them in the months to come. I felt grief in the pit of my stomach, grief that I had managed to push down for the past few months. But now that we were bound for Europe, it all came bubbling to the surface. Oh God, I thought. What if this whole thing is an enormous mistake?

I felt my face flush and thought I might throw up. I tugged on Dottie’s arm. Viv was charming some of the men standing next to us with a story about learning to play Ping-Pong during our recent training in DC.

“I’ve got to find a bathroom,” I said into Dottie’s ear. “I’m feeling a little ill.”

“Sheesh, it’s kind of early to be seasick, Fiona,” Dottie said. “We haven’t even left the harbor yet. Fiona? Fiona!” Dottie called after me as I moved as fast as I could through the throngs of GIs, my hand over my mouth.

I heard greetings of “Hey, doll!” and “What’s the matter, freckles?” from the dozens of men I pushed past. A couple of them graciously asked if I was okay.

I finally found a bathroom tucked into the space underneath the stairs to an upper deck. I slammed the door behind me and locked it, taking another deep breath as I splashed water on my face. In the small round mirror, I looked even paler than usual, making the freckles across my nose more prominent. I adjusted the pins on my new cap and smoothed down my newly shorn, shoulder-length hair. It was only then I noticed that my hands were shaking. I opened the tiny porthole above the toilet to let in some air and sank to the floor. I didn’t throw up, but for the first time in many months, I began to cry.

In March, I had let Viv and Dottie drag me to see the Saturday matinee of Jane Eyre starring Orson Welles and Joan Fontaine. It had always been one of my favorite novels, so I reluctantly agreed to go. Before the movie started, we watched a short newsreel. The words Now more than ever, your Red Cross is at his side flashed across the screen with a familiar picture of a soldier standing next to a woman in a Red Cross uniform, the same one I was wearing today. It was followed by footage of Red Cross Clubmobile girls serving the troops all over Europe. There was a trio of these girls in Italy and then more footage of them in North Africa, happily serving coffee and doughnuts to soldiers out of a converted truck. There were other scenes of these women playing records and dancing the jitterbug with GIs against the backdrop of blown-out buildings. A voice-over began:

Our Red Cross Clubmobile girls must be single, college graduates, and over the age of twenty-five. They are handpicked for their looks, education, and personality. They are hardy physically and have a sociable, friendly manner.

Seeing those women—traveling, directly helping the war effort—had stirred something in me that I hadn’t felt since Danny had gone missing. It was a combination of hope and exhilaration. That feeling you have before the first day of college or when starting a new job. The newsreel had seemed like a sign from above. Maybe I could do something real in the war effort other than assemble care packages at the local USO. Volunteering for the Red Cross could be a way to honor Danny. And more than anything, it was a plan, a way forward—a way to try to find out what had happened to him the day his plane was shot down. Right after seeing that reel, I decided to apply to become a Red Cross Clubmobile girl.

I got up, looked at myself in the mirror, and said out loud to my reflection, “Nice job, Fiona. Did you think these soldiers wouldn’t remind you of your missing fiancé? Did you think going to war was going to be a walk in the park? Get a grip.”

I jumped at the sound of someone banging on the bathroom door.

“Fiona! Fi? Are you talking to yourself? Open up.” I recognized Viv’s raspy voice coming from outside.

“Fiona, we know you’re in there,” Dottie said in her high-pitched tone. “Open the door.”

I wiped my tears and unlatched the door to see my best friends standing on the other side. Viviana was frowning at me, her violet-blue eyes studying my face. Dottie stood next to her, peering over her red horn-rimmed glasses, unable to hide her worry.

“Oh, Jesus, Fiona, look at you,” Viv said as she barged in with Dottie, locking the door behind them. “We’ve got to clean you up; no soldiers need to see you all swollen and tear-stained. We’re supposed to be boosting their morale, not making them feel worse.”

“Um, yeah, no kidding, Viv. Why do you think I’m hiding in the bathroom?” I answered as she started blotting my face with powder.

“Here, some fresh lipstick too. This coral color will look good on you, Fi; it’s too light for my skin tone,” Dottie said as she handed the lipstick to me. “Now, while Viv’s fixing you up, do you want to tell us what’s going on? Are you okay? Why did you rush off like that?”

“I’m sorry, girls. It’s being with all these soldiers and seeing their loved ones waving good-bye. I’m not going to lie: it got to me,” I said. “I also felt like I was going crazy because for a minute I actually thought one of the soldiers on the deck above us was Danny. It hasn’t even been a year since he’s been . . . he’s been gone and . . . my God . . . It all just hit me . . . We’re not at training in DC anymore; we are on the boat to England . . . to the war. I’ve been trying—I mean, I think I’ve been pretty strong about all of this, but just now? It was too much.”

“Sweetheart, have a seat. We need to talk,” Viv said as she slid down the wall underneath the porthole, pulled a pack of Chesterfields out of her pocket, and lit one cigarette.

“Are you seriously going to smoke in here, Viv?” Dottie asked, waving a hand in front of her face and grimacing. “Isn’t that against the rules? No smoking while in uniform?”

“Who’s going to rat on me?” Viv said with a smirk and a wink. Dottie let out a sigh and sat down against the opposite wall, where I joined her.

“Want a smoke?” Viv asked. “It’ll calm your nerves.”

I shook my head. Dottie patted my knee and said, “Fiona, honey, honestly? You’ve been so strong, it’s been . . . well, it’s been a little odd, frankly. You’ve been too calm.”

Viv nodded and took a drag of her cigarette. “Dottie’s right, Fi,” she said. “You lost your fiancé in October, and for the past few months you’ve barely talked about it, even when we’ve asked. You’ve just been forging ahead. I’m kind of surprised you haven’t fallen apart more, way before getting on this boat.”

“He’s missing, not lost,” I said. “And I’m going to finally be honest with both of you because you’re my best friends in the world and I couldn’t have done this—couldn’t have gone through applying or training, couldn’t have gotten on this boat—without you.

“Danny is missing. He very well may be . . . he may be dead, but what keeps me awake at night is that I don’t know anything for sure. The truth is, I’m hoping to find answers, or maybe even to find him. I know I sound crazy for even saying it . . . but I’m not sure I can live the rest of my life with ‘missing in action.’ So now you know. There’s a lot of good reasons for us being here, but my main reason? It’s to try to find out about Danny.”

“Viv, you owe me five dollars,” Dottie said, nudging her with her foot.

“What?” I said incredulously, hoping for a more thoughtful response to my confession. “Wait . . . you two made a bet about this?”

“We did and I do owe you, Dottie,” said Viv with a laugh. “Fiona. Please. We’ve all been friends since the first day of college. Believe it or not, we know you pretty well by now. Dottie was sure that was why you were doing this.”

“I thought I was losing my damn mind when I saw Danny on that deck. I’m a bit of a wreck now that we’re actually on our way.”

“Well, of course you’re nervous and still grieving.” Viviana looked me in the eyes. “Honey, you don’t have to be so strong all the time. You’re allowed to fall apart once in a while . . . but try not to do it in front of the soldiers, okay?”

“Never in front of the soldiers,” I said. “My God, some of them are babies.”

“I heard a bunch of them saying they graduated last month,” Dottie added, chewing on a strand of her hair. “From high school. And I second what Viv said: we’re here for you. You don’t have to hide it the way you’ve been trying to these past few months. We’ll get through this together. We’re all nervous.”

“I’m not that nervous,” Viv said with a shrug as she tapped her cigarette, ashes sprinkling the bathroom floor.

“Shush, Viv, you know that even you are,” Dottie said. “I am, for a lot of reasons, one being that I’m not nearly as outgoing as you and Viv. I think I barely passed that requirement in the personal interview. If I hadn’t pulled out my guitar at the end, I’m sure they would have rejected me.”

Dottie was right about that. She was not a fit for the “outgoing, friendly” persona the Red Cross was looking for. At some point she was going to have to talk to the soldiers and play her guitar, not just smile pretty and blush.

“Anyway, I understand you wanting answers about Danny,” Dottie continued. “And the three of us are here together, for all the other reasons we’ve talked about.”

“She’s right,” Viv said. “We all need this. It’s been so frustrating seeing Danny, Dottie’s brother, all our friends—men our age—get shipped off to war and we can’t do anything to help them but assemble care packages and serve stupid frankfurters at the USO.”

“Like you said yourself, Fiona, if Danny possibly gave his life to the war, you can—”

“I can give it one year. I know,” I said with a sigh. I could give it a year. And I knew I could barely stand the thought of living one more day with my parents and sisters, feeling sorry for myself. And working at city hall with the rest of the staff constantly giving me looks of pity.

“And if we had waited too long, the war might be over,” Dottie said. “And even if not, I’m not sure the Red Cross was going to come through Boston interviewing for Clubmobile positions again. We had to take the chance when we had it.”

“We did,” said Viv. “Ready or not, we’re on our way to England. We just went through six weeks of training for these jobs. I had to learn to play badminton, for the love of God. There’s no turning back now.”

“I know, Viv. I’m sorry I lost it for a moment,” I said, starting to calm down because, really, she was right. “What am I going to do, jump overboard? And God forbid you not get to use your newly acquired badminton skills.”

“And remember,” Dottie added, adjusting her cap, “it’s kind of a big deal to be chosen for this. One of the girls just told me they only choose one out of every six applicants. One out of six. We went through that gauntlet of interviews and exams—it’s a prestigious assignment.”

“And parts of it might be fun, you know,” said Viv. “Travel, adventure, our first trip to Europe—our first trip anywhere—and the three of us get to go together? When was the last time you really let yourself have fun, Fiona?”

“I know, I know. Thank you for reminding me,” I said, giving them both a smile. “This is a fresh start. One that I desperately need.”

“You got that right.” Viv winked at me as she stood up and threw her cigarette in the toilet. Dottie jumped up, grabbed my hands, and pulled me off the floor.

The three of us stood squeezed in front of the mirror and did a quick check of ourselves. We were a study in contrasts. Dottie was petite with olive skin, rosy cheeks, and thick black hair like the rest of her Portuguese family. Her glasses only served to highlight her large dark eyes. Viv, on the other hand, was tall with dark-reddish-brown curls, high cheekbones, and full lips. I was the palest of the three by far, with green-gray eyes and those freckles across my nose.

“You should adjust your cap so you can see the highlights in the front of your hair, Fiona,” Dottie said. My hair was light brown, but I had an odd chunk of blonde streaks in the front.

“Maybe I should adjust it right down in front of my puffy eyes so no one can tell I was crying,” I said, frowning at my reflection.

We all jumped when someone started banging on the door loudly and we heard a voice say, “Hellooooo? Hello, Boston? Y’all in there? It’s Blanche.”

“As if we couldn’t tell by that accent,” I said, opening the door to see Blanche Dumond, a spitfire of a girl from New Orleans. She was curvy, blonde, and fast-talking. We had met her at training in DC.

“I thought I saw you heading this way,” Blanche said, raising her eyebrows at me. “You okay, honey? You aren’t looking so good.”

“She’s fine,” lied Viv as we filed out of the bathroom. Blanche had become known as somewhat of a gossip among all of us newly initiated Red Cross girls.

“Uh-huh,” said Blanche, unconvinced. “Anyway, a bunch of us are heading up to the officers’ deck—they call it the Bird Cage. There’s a bar and a club room and a piano. You want to join us? You need that red ID card they gave all of us to get in—only officers above captain and Red Cross girls allowed.”

“Of course,” Viv said. “I think we could all use a drink before the war. Hey, Dottie, you could play piano! Or you should go grab your guitar from our cabin.”

“Um . . . no, that’s okay, maybe next time,” Dottie said, already turning pink at the thought of performing in front of anyone outside the elementary school where she taught.

“Well, let’s go!” said Blanche, heading toward the stairs.

Viv and Dottie followed while I stood outside the bathroom.

“I’ll be right there,” I said, and they both stopped and looked at me, concern in their eyes.

“You promise, Fi?” Dottie asked.

“Yeah, yeah,” I said. “I want to freshen up a bit more. You know, the eyes.” I pointed to the puffiness I could feel underneath them.

“Okay, we’ll see you there,” Fiona said, and they kept walking.

I went back into the bathroom, stood in front of the mirror, and putting a bit of cool water on my swollen eyes. I reached into my pocket and felt for the folded letter. The last letter I had ever received from Danny before he was shot out of the sky somewhere over the forests of Germany. It was dated September 8, 1943. Danny went missing sometime around October 20. His family and I found out a month after that. I took the letter out of my pocket and started to open it, to read it for the thousandth time. I opened it halfway and saw my name at the top of the page in his familiar, terrible handwriting, but then I stopped myself. I looked up at the mirror, my puffy eyes staring back at me. I folded up the letter and shoved it as far into my pocket as I could.

I had already memorized it; reading it again wasn’t going to help me now.

“You’re doing this, Fiona,” I said to my reflection. “Ready or not, you’re doing this.”

I applied the lipstick Dottie had given me, and the eyes looking back at me now had more resolve and strength than when I’d first walked into the bathroom. It was time to go to war. Hopefully to find answers. Maybe to find Danny. view abbreviated excerpt only...

Discussion Questions

1. Before reading The Beantown Girls, had you ever heard of the Red Cross Clubmobile Girls of WWII?

2. What surprised you most about the experiences of these women during the war?

3. Of the three main characters – Viv, Dottie and Fiona and their friends Blanche, Frankie and Martha - who did you relate to the most and why?

4. In WWII, the perception was that women did not go to war. And yet in the case of the Clubmobile Girls, and other groups, some did. These women were strong in the face of adversity, but historically have never really been recognized for their efforts – why do you think that is?

5. How have gender roles changed since WWII?

6. Did any parts of the book get your choked up or teary-eyed? Which part(s)?

Suggested by Members

We zoomed with the author and throughly enjoyed her presentation with pictures and facts of the events she wrote about.
by Marcia55 (see profile) 06/10/20

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Member Reviews

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by Georgann S. (see profile) 04/30/22

by Jennifer B. (see profile) 07/24/21

  "The Beantown Girls"by Marcia D. (see profile) 06/10/20

This book was eye-opening to events that are relatively unknown to most Americans. These women were brave.

by Pamela S. (see profile) 01/08/20

Good history but a bit juvenile

by Karen B. (see profile) 06/28/19

by Jenna L. (see profile) 03/14/19

I liked this book, it was an easy and fun read (subject matter wasn’t fun obviously, but the girls and their misadventures were sometimes fun).
I really enjoyed the knowledge quest I went
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