Published: April 25, 2017
People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.
Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.
Beartown explores the hopes that bring a small community together, the secrets that tear it apart, and the courage it takes for an individual to go against the grain. In this story of a small forest town, Fredrik Backman has found the entire world.
This novel concerns a Swedish youth league hockey team and its place in a declining town. “Hockey is just a silly little game,” he writes. “We burn and bleed and cry, fully aware that the most the sport can give us, in the very best scenario, is incomprehensibly meager and worthless: just a few isolated moments of transcendence. …But what the hell else is life made of?”
Beartown quickly turns dark as the author exposes the one-track hearts and minds of some of Beartown’s residents. The isolated community in the novel is in Sweden, but “Beartown” is a universal story of homophobia, sexism and politics that could take place anywhere.
“Small towns need a head start if they’re going to have any chance in the world,” Backman writes, and, as readers soon learn, covering up a heinous crime is not up for debate if the town is going to make economic and social advances. It’s why Backman’s descriptions of screeching hockey parents who yell at coaches and other parents during games — we’ve all seen them — seem almost comical set against the ugly group mentality that takes over after a teen is raped and the Beartown Ice Hockey Club’s star player is accused of the crime.
Current fiction may have no more courageous young female character than Maya, who faces hate and threats after she comes forward about the rape. Backman writes a gritty, heart-stopping account of the sexual assault after which the novel then pivots into even more ominous territory as the town turns on her and her family.
Beartown is not just about a sexual assault; it’s also about Beartown families closing ranks and perpetuating falsehoods to protect themselves and the hockey team. It’s also about the all-encompassing culture of youth sports — the physical, mental and emotional commitment demanded of the players (not necessarily a bad thing) and the way that team sponsors, coaches and fans treat players like products rather than human beings.
So, although the book initially seems to be about the sport of hockey in a very small Swedish town, it is about sooo much more than that.
Five stars and I highly recommend it.