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A Town Forced To Take Sides: Beartown by Fredrik Backman

Fredrik Backman joined the list of Nordic writers to achieve best seller status  with his debut novel A Man Called Ove.  A few other novels later he produced another hit: Beartown

It’s been called a sports novel and also a crime novel. Neither descriptions do justice to this book. Yes it dwells a lot on ice hockey which is the all-consuming passion of the inhabitants of the small community of Beartown. And yes a crime does take place. But Backman’s focus is more on the effects of the crime on the people living in this community than on the crime itself.

The community of Beartown has seen better days. Every year more jobs disappear. Every year the forest swallows up another abandoned house so the whole place looks as “nature and man were fighting a tug-of-war for space.”

But its local inhabitants believe a new future is just around the corner. All that needs to happen is for their talented junior ice hockey team to win the national championship. Success will be the catalyst for new investment in the town, starting with a new ice hockey stadium and academy to replace the rusting rink built forty years earlier.

All the hopes and dreams of this community now rest on the shoulders of a bunch of 15-year-old boys. And on the shoulders of one boy in particular; their star player Kevin.  But shortly before the team’s most critical match, Kevin is accused of rape by Maya, the teenage daughter of the hockey club’s much-admired general manager.

Backman traces what led up to this act:  the pressures faced by the players, the conflict between the team’s financiers and its coaching staff, the hormonal impulses experienced by teenagers. The inner life of this community is laid bare, revealing homophobia, sexism and class prejudice beneath a veneer of respectability. The people of Beartown coached their junior team to display the same values the first settlers held dear: work hard, keep your mouth shut and don’t complain.

But those values come under strain as the community begins to take sides. Even those who believe Maya’s accusations (and there are plenty who don’t) keep asking why the girl just couldn’t have kept silent. Or rather why couldn’t she just have waited until the game was over?

This is a novel that avoids the easy answers. It shows that people are complicated and inconsistent.

So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that’s easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe – comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy.

Beartown is a thought-provoking novel that forces us as readers to evaluate our own values and whether what we consider loyalty is necessarily an admirable quality.

There are few words that are harder to explain than “loyalty.” It’s always regarded as a positive characteristic, because a lot of people would say that many of the best things people do for each other occur precisely because of loyalty. The only problem is that many of the very worst things we do to each other occur because of the same thing.

Can this town recover? Reading it you hope that there are sufficient vestiges of courage and decency to make that possible. But then you remember the very first sentence in the novel:

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.

Beartown isn’t perfect. It took time to get moving (I was got rather tired of all the hockey practice details) but once it did, it proved to be a riveting read. It’s full of some memorable characters, especially Maya who is determined not to be either a victim or the guilty party; and Amat, the boy who dreams of being accepted as part of the team even though he has none of their wealth and privileged upbringing. What he lacks in stature however, he more than makes up for with his speed, agility and dogged determination. The scenes where he takes to the ice taking a battering against bigger, more powerful players are especially moving.

It’s a tribute to Backman’s skill that he made a novel that contains so much sport, an entertaining read for someone who has little to zero in sport as a whole. 

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