Book Review: Beartown by Fredrik Backman

Hockey season is over, and this means two things: I am no longer doing my kegels during the National Anthem and I have time to read books in long stretches – instead of when the Zamboni is making rounds. I grabbed this book off the Target shelf after a now immemorable bad day and carried it around toward the end of the season, and just got to it this week. I was doubtful I could handle the emotional load of reading about a bunch of teenaged hockey players and a tragedy, but the cover was nice and I didn’t want another romance or American marriage introspective.

The novel begins:

“Late one evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead, and pulled the trigger.

This is the story of how we got there.”

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Fredrik Backman’s Beartown is situated in, well, Beartown. Like many elements of the book, the town itself is archetype: small town that used to be great, once great men down on their luck, a bar, a factory. What makes the town, like all of them, is the characters who reside within.

A club president who, upon our first introduction, is “sitting at his desk eating a sandwich the way a German shepherd would try to eat a balloon filled with mayonnaise” (60).

Peter, the team general manager who is almost anachronistically conflict-averse, husband to fierce Kira and father to key character Maya and Leo.

Sune, an established coach in risk of being pushed out in the name of progress tells a player: “Community is the fact that we work toward the same goal, that we accept our respective roles in order to reach it. Values is the fact that we trust each other. That we love each other . . . culture is as much about what we encourage as what we actually permit” and explains that this means “that most people don’t do what we tell them to. They do what we let them get away with” (210).

Ana, Maya’s best friend who loves hunting with her father and reminds us that the gender disparity in hockey goes beyond US lines, in that “Girls aren’t allowed to like hockey even just a little bit in Beartown” (330).

Benji, arguably the greatest character in the novel.

And many others.

Backman commands the universal here: “A simple truth, repeated as often as it is ignored, is that if you tell a child it can do absolutely anything, or that it can’t do anything at all, you will in all likelihood be proven right” (79) without schmaltz, and this generality contributes to an almost fairy tale sense, “There’s a town in a forest that loves a game. There’s a girl sitting on a bed playing the guitar for her best friend. There’s a young man sitting in a police station trying not to look scared” (250).

“There are two things that are particularly good at reminding us how old we are: children and sports” (37).

While I’m not sure how much this story will translate to readers who don’t know hockey, anyone who has experienced a love of something, whether it is sports or hobbies or whatever, so deep that it is a core part of their life can understand the implications that come when what you love seems to have hurt someone you love.

Backman’s writing is as clear and lovely as an Ikea catalog, and I wonder if this comes from its original language of publication (Swedish) or the accuracy of the translation (Neil Smith) or both. The pace is fast, and I found myself speeding through passages to get to the next discovery only to force myself back, to slow down, and not miss important details. I thought I had the book figured out from reading the back in the Target aisle, and I was pleasantly surprised to find my predictions incorrect on nearly every level.

Beartown goes far beyond hockey and examines problems within youth sports, the very real existence of rape culture and how it often masquerades as low grade sexism and “tradition”, marriage, the raising of children, and the simultaneous beauty and brutality that comes with raising a family and a community.

I cannot recommend it enough.

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