Book Title: Beartown
Author: Fredrik Backman
REVIEWED BY: CHELSEA
Genres: Fiction, Contemporary, Sports
Date Read: 05/10/17
Pub Date: 04/25/17
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.
I’m sure anyone who has either read this book or heard anything about it by now realizes this is a huge departure for Backman from his usual tale. About a month ago I was recording a podcast with the lovely Anne Bogel and one of the recommendations she gave me was to read Beartown. While we all know Backman for his uplifting fiction that is both touching and emotional, this was described to me as “a serious, heavy read that lacked his whimsical trademark”. There are few things I love more than reading a book that is wholly different than what an author is known for, so I knew I had to pick this one up quickly and see what all the fuss was about. When Sam from Clues and Reviews suggested a buddy read I knew that time had come (SPOILER ALERT-SHE LOVED IT TOO). I’m so glad that I picked this up when I did; I’m currently in major book hangover mode and can’t seem to settle in with another story until I work through my feelings on this one. Bare with me as this review will be long winded.
“It’s only a game. It only resolves tiny, insignificant things. Such as who gets validation. Who gets listened to. It allocates power and draws boundaries and turns some people into stars and others into spectators. That’s all.”
Hockey has never been my thing. I grew up in the deep south where football is praised more highly than any other sport, but baseball was where my friends and I found ourselves watching games in high school. Most of my guy friends were on the team, and I remember the awe inspiring excitement we felt at every win and the crushing agony of each loss. I attended a small private school that wasn’t known for it’s ability to crush it’s opponents in sports, but during my high school years we had an exceptionally good baseball team (2 of our players ended up playing professionally years later). It was difficult for our school to get behind the idea of team spirit and to fan the flame of hope when we were crushed in each game season after season, but I remember the anticipation that began to grow amongst the student body those years. This experience is what allowed me to fully succumb to the excitement of the hockey scenes in this story. Hockey is a large piece of this book and I’d go as far as suggesting that hockey is it’s own character in the novel, but it wasn’t from an overly technical point of view. I found that the overall plot and the hockey scenes awoke that same feeling I used to have while watching high school baseball and it brought to life a sport I never dreamed I could become entranced by. I think Backman said it best when he wrote “Hockey is like faith. Religion is something between you and other people; it’s full of interpretations and theories and opinions. But faith… that’s just between you and God. It’s what you feel in your chest when the referee glides out to the center circle between two players, when you hear the sticks strike each other and see the black disk fall between them. Then it’s just between you and hockey. Because cherry trees always smell of cherry trees, whereas money smells of nothing.”
“A great deal is expected of anyone who’s been given a lot.”
This seems to be the central theme surrounding the book. There are a great deal of characters in this novel; the ever-changing and growing cast seems to add multidimensional aspects to the story that cause it to leap off the page and bury deep into your mind. There were certain characters and views that I was naturally more drawn to (i.e. Amat, Benji, and Kira), yet I found each tongue necessary in the overall narrative to give the clearest picture; this also caused myself to question my knee-jerk reactions and judgements I dropped along the way. In an attempt to not spoil anything for future readers, I’ll just state that the content is heavy and much darker than a traditional Backman story, but it still holds that magical quality where you seem to be watching the exchanges and thoughts happening from just outside the realm of reason. There is nothing in this tale that hasn’t been written before, but the way in which it is told was especially unique and the subject matter is timely and necessary.
“If you are honest, people may deceive you. Be honest anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfishness. Be kind anyway.
All the good you do today will be forgotten by others tomorrow.
Do good anyway.”
The above is just a fraction of the wisdom handed down from Amat’s mother, and I highly recommend picking up a copy just to read the rest, but my purpose for posting above is to clarify how this sums up the moral of the story. Even with all the injustice surrounding the evil act committed in this novel, there are consistently small glimmers of hope. Please do not misunderstand; this is not a happy go lucky book. There are no feel good finishing pages, although there is still that seed of sunlight planted. What I found separated this from being just another depressing story was the shining examples of forgiveness. There are many examples of diversity on all ends of the spectrum included in this story as well, and the author has woven them through in such a way where it doesn’t feel forced or awkward; there is nothing screaming “Look at me! Look at how diverse my characters are! Please pat me on the back for simply including them!” No, these characters were infused with a subtle realism that caused me to take a step back after turning the final page and bask in the awe I felt from what Backman created with this book. While I could ramble on for days, I’d rather stop here and highly suggest that you pick up your own copy and experience first hand the sheer brilliance of Beartown. This book wrecked me; it pulverized my soul and made me realize how easy it would be for this story to come to life. Highly, HIGHLY recommended for anyone willing to give this novel a fair shot. I’m not sure this story, nor these characters, will ever fully leave my consciousness, and I simply cannot wait to experience whatever Backman choses to craft next.
ABOUT THE AUTHOR:
Fredrik Backman is the #1 New York Times bestselling author of A Man Called Ove, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, Britt-Marie Was Here, Beartown, as well as a novella, And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer. His books are published in more than thirty-five countries. He lives in Stockholm, Sweden, with his wife and two children. Beartown is his latest novel.