Warning: Major Spoiler Alert! Do not read farther if you don’t want to know the end of the book.
The Eleventh Man by Ivan Doig is a depressing book. He kills off a lot of characters, including all the football team referenced in the title, except the man (Ben Reinking) telling the stories of his teammates. In some parts of the book, a character is dying on every page. I know it’s a story about World War II, it just seems a little excessive to me. My grandparents lived through WWII, and I don’t think most of them knew more than one or two people who died. That said, it is a book about Montanans in WWII, and Doig points out in the afterword that Montana gave more than its fair share of men, and more than its fair share of casualties with a higher casualty rate than any other state than New Mexico (and New Mexico’s units happened to be almost all the men on the Bataan Death March).
Doig also uses this book to catch up with some of the characters, families, and places that feature in his other books on Northern Montana, particularly the ones set in the Two Medicine region. It’s a little disconcerting to see Touissant Rennie again, as he was already old in the last book he appeared in. The Medicine Lodge Saloon shows up, under new ownership. That was like seeing an old friend again. But I take issue with Doig just giving a little information, too. I’ve read all the books featuring the McCaskill family, and it’s disconcerting and sad to see McCaskill, Alex in a list of war dead with no other information. Is he the last of the family? Is that it? The McCaskill family, done in Montana because of a bomb somewhere in Europe? Or did he have brothers and sisters? As you can tell, I become very involved with the characters in the books I read, I worry about them like I would real people.
The back of the book had a quote from some official reviewer, saying something about this is a book about heroes, and the true nature of heroism. I suppose it is, but I think it’s more about the lengths to which some people will go in order to create heroes. Bruno, the football coach, and Louden, his sportswriter sidekick, killed a boy in their quest for a hero, and then turned him into one rather than admit to what they’d done. And then Louden did his best to send the rest of the team, after they enlisted in the military, into harm’s way, just so he could have a bunch of dead heroes to write about. The words I have for a man toad like that are not adequate.
I was disappointed that the book ends when it does. It seemed abrupt. Louden and his government agency, TPWP, finally encounter someone with more ‘pull’ than they, and Ben is yanked back to the States from Europe, just in time to avoid a final showdown (that he would have lost). Then the book ends. There is no resolution to the rest of the war, or how he fares after the war, or what happens with him and his lover. I want to know.
I was also disappointed to read in the afterword that Doig exaggerated the role of women pilots in the WASPS, and they were not really ferrying planes from Montana to Canada. Now I want to know more about what the women pilots really did in the war. The way Doig tells it makes a better story, but I’d rather know how women really fared. I’m sure it doesn’t make nearly such a good story.
Three out of five stars. Good, but not as good as some of his others.