Beartown // by Fredrik Backman

//published 2016//

One of Litsy’s many reading challenges is #AuthoraMonth.  In December, anyone who wanted to participate voted on which authors to include for the year, and the top twelve candidates were each assigned a month of 2020.  I haven’t even heard of half the authors that were chosen, so I’m going to try to read a book or two for each author every month.  Backman is January’s author, and he’s one of those writers whose books I have seen around and have thought I should read, but just never have.  I decided to read  Beartown and A Man Called Ove, which seem to be his two most popular works, plus I remembered that Stephanie really loved Beartown a lot. I enjoyed both books (I just finished Ove last night), even if Beartown did somewhat emotionally destroy me!

I’m really behind the bandwagon on Beartown, so most of you have probably already read it.  But in case you haven’t, it’s a story that takes place in Sweden (and was originally written/published there) in a very, very small town that is slowly disappearing.  One of the few things left in this town is its hockey team, which, this year in particular, is brilliant.  The team is two games away from winning the national championships.  If they do, it can mean so many good things for the town and for specific players and their families.  The tough part is that this is the junior team – all of this pressure is on the shoulders of a handful of teenagers.

Trying to describe and summarize this book is almost impossible, because it’s about so many different things.  Hockey yes, but I wouldn’t describe it as a sports book.  I know basically nothing about hockey, yet I’m still thinking about this incredibly poignant book weeks after finishing it.  It’s really a book about human nature, and the people who live in this small town, and hockey is just the catalyst for everything.

I’m not sure that city people will “get” this book to its fullest.  Unless you’ve lived in and experienced a small town that is dying, house by house, year by year, I don’t think you can be hit with the full impact of what Beartown is facing.  It sounds melodramatic to say that winning the championship could “save the town” – but it’s true.  And it’s that kind of pressure that makes Beartown so gripping.  There is a lot more at stake here than just some kids getting to feel good about winning a game, and Backman does an amazing job building up those other stakes.

There is a LOT of stuff going on in this book.  There are soooo many stories and characters and situations woven throughout this book, and it’s all done brilliantly.  There is a cast of five million characters yet I never had any trouble keeping them straight.  Backman’s skill is in making each and every one of those characters someone that you can, even if it’s only for a brief moment, empathize with.  No matter how much of a jerk they are, no matter what they do or say, he always manages to give you at least one second of time where you can see what this person is thinking and why they are thinking it and even though you know they are so, so wrong, you can’t help but think I get it.  And that’s what makes this book so powerful.

There is a situation in this story where it’s one person’s word against another, and sides are taken, and people are full of rage, and it’s all done quite well.  The reader already knows the truth about the situation, and so the reader knows who to believe, and the reader is led to view those who don’t believe that person as wrong.  Yet I found myself thinking a lot about this, because at the end of the day it was just one person’s story against another, and I wonder how this story would have read if Backman hadn’t told the readers the truth of what happened until the end – how would I have viewed everyone then.  Situations like this are complicated and delicate and confusing and almost impossible to find the truth in, and I almost wonder how it would have read if the reader never did know what really happened.

Anyway. This wasn’t exactly a happy story.  There were so many times that reading this book made me feel both angry and depressed.  Yet at the same time, Backman’s writing somehow manages to keep his story from drifting into the “hopeless” territory.  I loved everyone, even the people who weren’t very lovable.  I don’t usually read books and think “This should be a reading club book!” but I thought that about this one.  There is a lot to unpack and discuss and contemplate, yet at its heart it is still an excellent story – it doesn’t read like a book that was written so that people would have things to discuss at book club.

In the end, 4* for Beartown, a book that I didn’t really love, yet can’t stop thinking about.