*Beartown is a forgotten, dying town. All the hopes of the townspeople rest on their hockey team to bring them back some glory days. The town is consumed by hockey. Their love for hockey supersedes their love for all else and guides their thoughts and behavior; sometimes, neither the team’s nor the town’s behavior is exemplary.
Peter Andersson is the General Manager of the team. He is about to terminate Sune who has been the “A” team coach forever. Peter was convinced to become the General Manager of the team by Sune, after the death of his first born son, Isak, but hockey comes first before friendship and loyalty. There is only one loyalty in Beartown, and it is first and foremost to the game and the team. The sponsors, the club and the town demand it. They are all involved in hockey, and it is the be-all and end-all of everything. If the team wins the finals, Beartown will get a renewed lease on life with a new state-of-the-art, hockey rink. Therefore, the players, the club members, the leadership and the residents are products to be used and discarded as needed. Winning is the only game in town. It is what they all believe will save their town from eventual extinction.
Peter was a hockey star until an injury benched him forever. His wife Kira is a relatively successful lawyer. They have two children, Maya and Leo. Maya is a typical 15 year-old teenage girl; her heartstrings are awakening. She is woefully naïve and a bit immature, believing she has more power to control her own fate than she truly possesses. Life is about to intervene and awaken her rudely to a new reality.
David is single, and he was also sidelined by injury. He was convinced to become the junior team coach by Sune whom he will soon betray for the town and the team. His motto for his junior team is only one word, and it has worked for his team for a decade. It makes them feel invincible. His motto is simply WIN! Kevin is one of his junior team members. Amat is soon to be one of them.
Kevin, 17, is the star of the junior team. He is dedicated and unstoppable. He is also very wealthy. His father is a team sponsor. His parents are rarely home, and rarely see him play. They will never be accused of being helicopter parents. Kevin is arrogant and self-assured. The town hears him practicing often. It is the sound of “bang, bang, bang” as he slams the puck into the net over and over. He is a dynamo on the ice. His parents turn a blind eye to his misdeeds and pretend he does nothing wrong. His success at hockey is their only goal.
Amat, 15, skates at the rink in exchange for doing chores for the caretaker. His mom, Fatima, is the cleaner at the rink. He adores hockey and his mom. He tries to do everything to lighten her load because she has a bad back. He knows he means everything to her. She loves watching him skate at the rink before it opens for the regulars, the figure skaters and the hockey teams who have scheduled ice time. Amat is honorable and unassuming. He is dedicated to improving his hockey game. His motto is “again, again, again” as he skates around the rink trying to become faster and faster to make up for his small size.
There are other characters, and each plays an important role. They are all defined well. Zacharias is Amat’s best friend. He is a hockey player, but he is nowhere near as talented as his friend. He likes playing computer games. Benji is Kevin’s best friend. He also plays hockey. He does not follow rules well and is hot-tempered, but he is also Kevin’s protector. (In the book, Kevin is described as an investment and Benji is his insurance.) Benji has a secret. Ana is Maya’s best friend. She spends a lot of time at Maya’s house and not her own. She is less naive than Maya, but she is subject to the same weaknesses that all teenagers experience. These friendships are special as they morph through their different stages.
The town has two main areas. There is the Hollow and the Heights, and they are two opposite parts of town economically, but friendships and hockey unite them. The unspoken rule in the town which puts hockey above all else, even family, is the thread that runs throughout as the author highlights the toll that the world of hockey takes on its players and the town. The hypocrisy and the mob mentality that often follows sporting events, giving lie to the meaning of the words “good sportsmanship”, often follows when a town feels threatened, and it grows until it seems out of control, much like political protests. The focus is obscured, the goal is not solution, but instead it is vengeance.
Backman magnifies the guilt and the shame the characters feel, and he exposes the way people explain away their silence in the face of wrongdoing, justifying it with false excuses that simply give them comfort but do not solve the problems and perhaps only exacerbate them. He has a gift. He manages to capture all of the flaws of society and people, and he lays them bare. He confronts humanity or the lack thereof. He confronts homosexuality and rape. He confronts single motherhood, interracial relationships and the distinctions of class. He confronts bullies of all kinds and interprets the ambition, fear and anger each character faces. All are handled with dexterity. When the injustice and the warts are exposed, he subtly challenges the characters to rise above them, but often they do not. The curmudgeons are the most lovable characters in his books, and like in his other books, in this one, there is a strong role model, a female character who does set a fine example for the rest of the town to follow, even as she seems like the least likely one to do it. All of the characters seem authentic, even when the dialogue seems a little trite.
On the negative side, I found the departure from the wholesome narrative of his other books, to a book with crude language, a bit over the top and unnecessary. Some of the scenes seemed contrived, on occasion, as well. On the more curious side, I had some other thoughts. I wondered if the name of the rival town, spelled Hed, but pronounced as head, was deliberate. The supermarket owner was Tails. In the end, weren’t the goals of both towns, Hed and Beartown, competing for success. Were they opposite sides of the same coin? Also, Peter’s first born was Isak. Was he meant to make the reader think of the sacrifice of Isaac in the Bible?
*I had both a digital print copy provided by the publisher and an audio from the library.