In his epic new novel, The Eleventh Man, celebrated Seattle writer Ivan Doig tackles the huge maelstrom of World War II. The book follows the wartime odyssey of Ben Reinking, one of thousands of Montanans who enlisted in the military after the Japanese bombed Pearl Harbor.
Ben wants to fly, but the Army pulls him from pilot training and assigns him to a military public relations unit, the Threshold Press War Project ("Tepee Weepy"), to churn out stories on the fortunes of his fellow football players from the undefeated "Supreme Team" of Treasure State University. As he collects news material from combat zones and distant outposts, Ben romances a married female pilot, Cass Standish, while her husband slogs through the jungles in the South Pacific.
Doig recounts Ben's war experience with a novelist's eye for telling details and a historian's revealing research on little-known units and events, such as the Women's Air Force Service Pilots (WASP's), conscientious objector camps, and Coast Guard patrols of the Pacific coast, to the invasion of Guam, the brutal fighting in New Guinea, the Alaskan front, and the German aerial assault of Antwerp.
The novel was inspired by the actual wartime loss of the players on a legendary Montana State College football team. Doig spent three years researching and writing The Eleventh Man with the assistance of his wife, Carol.
The novel has been praised for its compassion, humanity and generous spirit. From Kirkus Reviews: "Doig, as always, brings American history alive in a rousing narrative that doesn't airbrush the past; questions of loyalty, courage and conscience, he shows, were just as complicated during World War II as they are today."
Doig, a historian by training, has a doctorate in western history from the University of Washington. Before graduate school, he served in the United States Air Force and worked as a journalist.
Doig has written three acclaimed works of nonfiction including his lyrical memoir, This House of Sky, and eight previous novels, notably a Montana trilogy: English Creek, Dancing at the Rascal Fair, and Ride with Me, Mariah Montana. The Western Literature Association honored him with a Lifetime Distinguished Achievement Award.
Doig recently discussed The Eleventh Man and the art of blending history and fiction from his Seattle home.
Was your main character, Army reporter Ben Reinking, based on a real soldier?
No. Ben is my own fictional creation, as my characters always are. No prototype there.
Ben wants to fly but he's assigned to write stories for the Threshold Press War Project. Was there a TPWP unit during World War II?
There was not a unit like TPWP or "Tepee Weepy." I made that up as well, although the Office of War Information was a big operation that did a lot of domestic propaganda. I've been aware of it through the years knowing, from my journalism background, about Elmer Davis, the fine journalist who became the head of [OWI]. I've noticed that Gordon Parks, the famous Black photographer, and Jane Jacobs, and quite a list of people worked for them. Tepee Weepy is an invention of my own for plot purposes. It's somewhat an exaggeration of so-called military public information, which is something of an oxymoron.
You were a preschool boy during World War II, but did your childhood bear on the novel?
I was aware of the war, especially in the aftermath. When I was a kid growing up in Montana, I was aware of how many people had been in the war. Two of my mother's brothers were in the war. One was on a destroyer in the South Pacific for much of the war, and the other one was in the Montana National Guard and was called up early on, and he spent much of the war in Australia in a unit that was sent to New Guinea in the terrible fighting there.
I was always aware within the family and in the ranch crews that my dad would hire in the bars of White Sulfur Springs, there were a lot of people who had been in the war. That stuck with me.
When I was working on the book about my mother's life, Heart Earth, I got to researching this. That book is set in late 1944 and early1945. I came across the list in the little weekly newspaper. The county was Meagher (pronounced "Mar"), named after an Irish Civil War general who became the governor of Montana Territory. Meagher County in the 1940 census had a population of 2237, and 273 people served in the war. It was a high percentage, and higher than the national percentage by quite a lot.
Montana in both world wars took an inordinate proportion of the death toll. That came in part from ranch guys who knew how to use a weapon [and] to do chores, so they were looked on as good, ready-made soldiers, and often put into harm's way promptly. So that did bear on me as a kid.
Ben is a reporter, a collector of stories. How did your work as a journalist bear on the book?
My work as a journalist comes out most dramatically in the use of Teletype. The teletypes are almost a character of their own [with] their own dialog, a sort of bullet-like way that things are expressed and boiled down.
When I started in the newspaper business in 1963, teletypes were still in use, and one of the echoes of those days are the teletype bells going off constantly after the Kennedy assassination as those news details broke across that long weekend.
Football is prominent in the novel. Did you play football in Montana?
Yes, I did play football. I was the 150-pound fullback on my high school team.
That's a small fullback.
Yes. A small fullback for a small team. I was the biggest man in the backfield. I had enough high-school football to hint at what Ben and the TSU team might have done.
Did you draw on your military experience in the Air Force in the book?
I certainly did, particularly the active duty during the Cuban missile crisis. I think some of the book's inflections of life in uniform are drawn from my own watching and waiting. B-52 bombers regularly roared off from our Texas airbase. We all knew we were within range of those Russian missiles in Cuba. During my six years of reserve duty, I did put in some time in public information.
Were you on "high alert" during the Cuban missile crisis?
Yes. It was high alert on the worst day of the Cuban missile crisis -- Oct. 27, 1962 -- the day a U2 plane was shot down over Cuba and another U2 plane strayed deep into Russia, and the U.S. Navy was depth-charging Soviet submarines in the Caribbean, and Russian troops in Cuba were maneuvering tactical nuclear missiles toward Guant