“She always thinks it was the forest that taught the people of Beartown to keep their mouths shut, because when you hunt and fish you need a way to stay quiet so as not to scare the animals, and if you teach people that lesson since birth, it’s going to color the way they communicate. So Ana has always been torn between the urge to scream as loud as she could, or not at all.” Fredrik Backman, BEARTOWN
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.
In truth, it took me several attempts to get through BEARTOWN. I kept thinking it was the book, but I realized on the third try–after countless trusted recommendations that I read it immediately–the problem existed in me.
For the last decade–as long as my oldest son has played the sport he found on his own–I have been haunted by ice hockey. From the danger and violence of the game, to bullying coaches, clusters of horrible parents, and a near-fatal injury my son suffered in November from a skate blade to the throat, I am traumatized. While in the ambulance, I thought, “At least we’re finished with hockey,” just as my son asked the EMT (applying just enough pressure to slow the bleeding, while allowing my son to breathe) when he could play hockey again. My son’s current coach calls the sport a “healthy addiction.” I don’t know if I agree.
And then there’s #HOCKEYSTRONG, a satire I wrote about youth sports parent insanity. My own take on the dark side of youth sports nearly gives me an anxiety attack to read. With a series of strange similarities, BEARTOWN is equally horrifying. BEARTOWN could take place five years in the future for my fictional team of “bears,” parent types overlap, and the bizarre mentality of the “race to nowhere” pervades, but what Backman captures far more poignantly is the group psychology of teams on the micro and macro levels, and the simultaneous loving and loathing of the sport.
“There’s hardly anything that can make Peter feel as bad as hockey can. And, absurdly, there’s hardly anything that can make him feel better.” ( p 93)
Distilled, this is the essence of the sport, but it can apply to any sport–to any “healthy addition”–that involves teams, families, and communities. The deep breakdown occurs when the lines between sport and living are blurred, when the sport becomes identity, when “for the good of the team or club” trumps reason, common sense, and eventually what is good and moral.
For these reasons, my mind could not accept BEARTOWN on the first two attempts, but I am grateful to my trusted friends for urging me forward. It turned out to be the best book I read this year.
You need not be a hockey fan (or even a sports fan) to enjoy BEARTOWN. It is a deeply woven, complex, family drama. The book is brutal, but redemption emerges from rock bottom, justice finds a way, the good of the “team” of the greater community triumphs.
“What can the sport give us? We devote our whole lives to it, and what can we hope to get, at best? A few moments…a few victories, a few seconds when we feel bigger than we really are, a few isolated opportunities to imagine that we’re…immortal. And it’s a lie. It really isn’t important…The only thing the sport gives us are moments. But what the hell is life…apart from moments?” p 109
Though the book takes place in Sweden, it could easily be anywhere in the US. The families, the troubles they face, and the situations of darkness and light are all of ours. If you are looking for a rich, challenging, and satisfying read, I cannot recommend BEARTOWN enough.
Even for traumatized hockey parents.