In Beartown, a small, dying town in Northern Sweden, hockey is IT. How goes hockey, goes the fortunes of the town. When the local junior hockey team, led by team captain Kevin, makes the national semi-finals, everyone is sure that when they win the whole tournament all the town's woes will go away. Gregory Cowles, writing for the New York Times, describes Beartown by Fredrik Backman as a sports book. Using this quote from the book as his rationale for describing it thus---
“Hockey is just a silly little game. 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?”Yet, life, like hockey, isn't that straight forward.
First off, there are a lot of people to consider and with people comes variables. Take the hockey team, for example: The old A-team coach, Sune, will likely be replaced by David, the Junior coach after the win. But Peter, the GM, is good friends with Sune and doesn't want to replace him. In the rink with Kevin are a bunch of guys that help him look good. There is Benji, his best friend and defender, who has a secret he doesn't even share with Kevin. There is Bobo who is large and slow and worries that this will be his last year on the team. Amat, an immigrant who lives alone with his mother, the custodian of the rink, is pulled up from a younger team to fill a need because he is so fast. Lyt, the team bully, also has a bully for a mother. Filip's mother, on the other hand, understands the need to compete as she was an international competitor in cross-country skiing when she was younger. Most of the boys look up to Kevin and defer to his decisions because he is so much better than them and will certainly some day end up in the NHL in North America. However, even Kevin doesn't have an idealistic life. His parents never even come to his games and often leave him home alone as they pride themselves on raising a resourceful boy.
After an exhilarating win, Kevin and the other members of the Juniors team meet up for a party where lots of booze and testosterone, a dangerous combination, lead to a rape and all the subsequent problems that occur afterwards. The whole town ends up weighing in on the situation. "Expressing thoughts like: Certainly Kevin, our Kevin, wouldn't rape a girl." "Just let the boy play hockey." "What happens in the rink, stays in the rink." Suddenly no one seems to be thinking as individuals any longer, and group think, or mob mentality takes over.
The cast of characters from town is also large. To mention a few there is Maya, Peter's daughter, who is the victim of sexual assault. Her mother, Kira, an attorney who doesn't care much for how everything in town centers around hockey. Maya's best friend, Ana, who loves and understands the forest that seems to want to engulf the town. And Ramona, the bar owner, whose wise insights often keep the town from completely falling apart. It is Ramona who sums up the situation in town as not one of right verses wrong, as most people think, but as good verses evil. Several characters' names are never even mentioned. They are either identified by the clothes they wear (the boy in the black sweater) or nicknames (Tails.) I'm sure there is a hockey analogy for that, too.
Yes, Beartown focuses on hockey but it isn't a sports book. It is a book about life---decisions and consequences; friendships; loyalty; coming-of-age; parenting; and muddling through.
At first, I had a hard time getting any traction on Beartown. I was just slipping around on the ice and not so sure I liked it. But as I read on, realizing I had to finish it as it is a book club selection, I came to really appreciate the writing. My favorite bits were the little quips or thoughts placed at the end of some of the chapters which always made me stop and think. Here are a few:
" If he gets a single chance to make a decisive move in the match this evening, there's nothing he wouldn't give to make the most of it."
"That's the last time they see each other in their childhood. That ends tonight."
"We can't protect our children we can't protect our children we can't protect our children."There was also a lot of foreshadowing which helped spur my sense of curiosity. The biggest tease was the first line of the opening chapter:
"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."If that sentence doesn't pique your interest, I don't know what will.
In the end, we get little glimpses of the future, ten years later. But it is written in such a way that the reader is not quite sure who is being talked about so one is left wondering. It is as if Backman wants his characters to live forever. Melinda Bargreen, writing for the Seattle Times, says that "readers may find they join the author in his unwillingness to say goodbye." The reviewer for Publisher's Weekly sums it up this way---"Backman veers close to the saccharine, but readers will be too spellbound to notice."
Yep, I'm one of them. Completely spellbound.
(SOTH Jan. 2019)