The members of a legendary Montana college football team become grist for the World War II PR mill in this latest from Doig (The Whistling Season, 2006, etc.).
Ben Reinking isn’t thrilled to be yanked out of pilot training and told that his assignment for the duration is to write about his former Treasure State University teammates for the Threshold Press War Project (TPWP), which provides ready-made stories for local newspapers across America. Despite their undefeated season at TSU in 1941, Ben has bad memories of their bullying coach, indirectly responsible for the death from overexertion of the squad’s 12th man, and he despises Ted Loudon, the smarmy sports columnist who dubbed them the “Supreme Team” and now thinks their collective story will be a propaganda bonanza. In the war’s far-flung theaters, from the jungles of New Guinea to bomb-blasted Antwerp, Ben struggles to write honestly about his teammates, including one who’s a conscientious objector, under the constraints imposed by the TPWP, which wants heroes, not the truth. His other major preoccupation is Cass Standish, a crackerjack pilot confined by her gender to ferrying fighter planes to bases. Ben and Cass are having a torrid affair, but she’s married and too honest to pretend she knows what will happen when her husband comes home from the Pacific. 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. He offers several scenes with his trademark blend of high drama underpinned by technical know-how: Ben and a buddy struggling to get a tired old plane in the air from a soft gravel runway; Ben reporting into a microphone attached to an unwieldy tape recorder as he lands with the Marines at Guam. Montana remains important as home ground, for the main characters and their author, but it’s a pleasure to see Doig expanding his horizons.
Another fine effort from a veteran writer who knows how to play to his strengths while continuing to challenge himself.