(Pittsburgh Tribune-Review, Nov. 30, Bob Minzesheimer)
Ivan Doig, who blends the skills of novelist and historian, was researching another book when he lucked onto a forgotten but stunning scrap of history:
In World War II, the 11 starters on the football team at Montana State College in Bozeman joined the military. All 11 died.
That “breath of actuality,” as he puts it, inspired Doig’s ninth novel, “The Eleventh Man.” It’s his most ambitious and one of his best.
In the novel, a small-town newspaper editor says, “History writes the best yarns.”
Doig has been doing just that in books such as “Dancing at the Rascal Fair,” set in his native Montana, as literary as it is sparse.
His new novel employs his usual brand of characters — prickly, quotable Westerners — and throws them into a world at war.
His fictional hero is Ben Reinking, the newspaper editor’s son, and a talented writer in his own right.
As a football star, Ben was part of that championship season at fictional Treasure State University, undefeated in 1941. Two years later, he is yanked from pilot training to become a military correspondent.
The brass, eager for heroes, orders him to write a series of articles about his former teammates scattered around the globe. But Ben is no propagandist, which means hinting at the complexities between the lines, as his ex-teammates are killed one by one.
Doig is at his best exploring little-known crannies of the war: work camps for conscientious objectors and the role played by WASPs (Women Air Force Service Pilots), one of whom Ben falls in love with. She’s smart, pretty and married.
The former football players and a mysterious 12th man who died in a team practice are hard to keep straight, at least early in the novel. Readers might wish for a scorecard to refer to.
But Doig’s language is a joy to read. His accounts of combat and the home front take on new resonance in the context of the current war, which seems to have no home front, at least for most Americans.
Near the end of World War II, Ben comes to realize that “The world was more complicated now, but he also knew that every era makes that excuse for tripping over itself.”
True then; true now