Anyone who grew up in a small town can attest to the fact that the locals’ pride trumps all else. Every town has their bragging points, some more impressive than others, and every town has an unspoken, underlying code of conduct that sets it apart from the rest of the world. Author Fredrik Backman paints a portrait of Beartown, a tiny Swedish town experiencing an economical decline, below freezing winters, and a whole lot of drama as one may expect from any small community such as theirs. This town’s point of pride? Hockey. Beartown lives and breathes hockey. It’s all they talk about, it’s all they think about, and it is the basket in which they’ve placed all of their eggs, with hopes that their Junior Team led by Kevin Erdahl will earn back their funding, reputation, and pride.
Hockey is in the veins of Beartown, its inhabitants, and this novel, but it is about so much more than that. Put simply, it’s about love. Even if you don’t care about hockey in the slightest, the fierce and unwavering love that Backman’s characters have for the sport will give you chills and long to love anything with that much devotion.
“Pride in a team can come from a variety of causes. Pride in a place, or a community, or just a single person. We devote ourselves to sports because they remind us of how small we are just as much as they make us bigger.” – Fredrik Backman.
Backman’s characters include the popular sports star with distant parents, the bad boy with a big heart, the underdog with big dreams, the girl, her best friend, and other such prototypical small town folk. Although these characters don’t simply play out their expected roles, they are brought to life by Backman through a phenomenal human quality that makes them likeable, unlikeable, relatable, and oh-so real all at once. His omniscient narration allows us to get inside the head of each of these individuals, to watch their memories with them, to feel their emotions, and to see Beartown and its people through their eyes. We see how the exorbitant amount of pressure manifests in these young athletes, each in their unique ways, we see young love, and unfortunately we see sexual harassment and abuse.
Issues of sexism and sexual harassment are introduced early on in this novel as the 17-year-old boys call their young female teacher “sweet heart” and refuse to acknowledge her authority. The injustice is only heightened when their athletic standing trumps her position when the principal sides with the boys. Next, we see more sexist undertones in regards to the treatment of Kira, wife of Beartown Hockey’s GM, Peter. Kira is a lawyer from the city, and treated as if she is behaving preposterously by continuing to work once married rather than supporting Peter and her children at home. Lastly, an act of sexual aggression is met with victim blaming, slander, violence, and hate. Though this underlying theme was unexpected in a book about hockey, it was entirely fitting and positively necessary because sadly, it happens, and needs to be talked about.
Fredrik Backman writes about the ordinary and the mediocre in a way that makes you crave that grimy arena coffee clutched between chilly hands on an early Sunday morning. The utter realism in the pages of Beartown brings you back to your childhood, when the smallest of problems seemed catastrophic, while also bringing you right into the present where injustice isn’t always met with reparations and right does not always prevail atop wrong.
Maybe I went into Beartown hoping for a story of the underdog rising, fans hugging in the stands, and young boys finally receiving the fatherly affirmations they’ve longed for all their lives; but what I got was so much more. You will put down this book just to think about some of its chilling lines, you will tear up during, both happy and sad, and at times you will have trouble unclenching your fists as you read its masterful passages. I would recommend Beartown to anyone, even if you’ve never seen a puck hit ice.