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Doig reimagines Montana athletes at war

Despite now living in Seattle, Ivan Doig remains one of Montana’s foremost storytellers. And Doig’s known for a specific kind of story: one that mines past lives, so that the echo of voices gone old (or forgotten) might reverberate in the present.

In the McCaskill Trilogy, Doig’s broad reach covered the first 100 years of Montana’s statehood. Now, in The Eleventh Man, his 12th book, Doig returns to the Montana of the 1940s, when gas and sugar were rationed, Spam was the sandwich meat of choice (not to mention necessity), and the Air Force base in Great Falls was as happening as a Friday night in downtown Missoula.

By the end of World War II, only New Mexico had suffered more casualties than Montana, and among those fallen were 11 starting players from the Montana State College football team. As the basis for his story, Doig re-imagines those 11 players as part of a legendary 1941 team at the fictional Treasure State University. In Doig’s version, there was a 12th player too—one who died at the start of the team’s successful season—and, in a mystery that unfolds throughout the novel, we learn that the 12th man’s death possibly implicates the team’s coach and a loudmouth sportswriter, both of whom bandied their future successes on the backs of the winning team’s season.

By 1943, each member of TSU’s “Supreme Team” has enlisted in the war, some for noble reasons, some not. The boys are scattered throughout the world: New Guinea, the Pacific, England, etc. Ben Reinking, the team’s former receiver and the son of a Montana newspaperman, has been pulled, more or less inexplicably, from pilot training to serve as a war correspondent for the Threshold Press War Project, the army’s propaganda outfit. Teepee Weepy, as Ben sarcastically refers to them, is desperate for war heroes. They send Ben to profile each of his former teammates with the general assignment of elevating each of the former football stars to war hero status.

At best, Ben resents the assignment, thinking himself as nothing more than a cog in the military’s larger plan. “He was more than just a mouthpiece for a government propaganda organ, wasn’t he?” Ben asks himself. “Had to be. Teepee Weepy only had him in its custody, it didn’t own him.”

In many ways, this is where Doig is at his best, in his ability to define the larger ideas of his novel—like propaganda, like a sense of place, like heroism—without demeaning the artfulness of his prose. Ben’s questioning reveals the central tensions in the novel without turning it into its own propaganda piece. Though this is a war book, there is little overt commentary about war and much of the action of war takes place off stage. Instead, Ben becomes hyper-aware of the larger effects of war. “The team and its mortal dangers were a mere handful compared to the innumerable slaughtered in the vaster jaws of war, no question there,” thinks Ben. “But they were his handful.”

Its obvious structure—Ben traveling to profile each of his former teammates works as a thinly disguised plot arc—sometimes weighs down the novel, but Doig’s richly textured prose and characterization more than make up for it. In between profiling his former teammates, Ben indulges in a romance with a married woman, Cass Standish, a captain for a team of WASPs (Women’s Airforce Service Pilots). Although the two fall desperately in love, Cass is unwilling to send her husband—who’s serving in New Guinea—a Dear John letter. Some of the novel’s best scenes are between these two lovers, when Ben is off-assignment and Doig’s mastery of storytelling is fully illustrated at the novel’s end, when romantic epiphany meets professional epiphany.

While heroism and wartime romance are hardly fresh fodder for novels (not to speak of football), Doig’s approach is fresh. The Supreme Team is hardly a retelling of Band of Brothers. Though his assignment is to glorify his former teammates, Ben’s travels reveal the petty motivations of some, the little-understood actions of others. As each former teammate is shown against the backdrop of their respective part of the war, the puff pieces Teepee Weepy expects of Ben become harder and harder to write. In dismantling two classic American mythologies—boys-on-the-football field and boys-on-the-field-of-battle—Doig reveals something all the more human and all the more interesting.

Ever since 1979, when This House of Sky, his memoir of growing up in Montana with his father and grandmother, was nominated for a National Book Award, Doig has continued to imagine the effect of the vast Montana countryside on the people who populate it. Often that effect is romantic. Yet Doig widens his geographic scope in The Eleventh Man, without losing his Montana roots. The effect is as wonderfully romantic as it is fiercely realistic.
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