Fredrik Backman burst onto the scene in 2014 with his widely adored novel, A Man Called Ove. Since then, he has established himself as a craftsman of endearing characters, ranging from Elsa to Britt-Marie and “Noah Noah.” Yet, Beartown marks a shift in his approach, one anchored less in exploring the intricacies of a single character as those of a community.
Beartown is a hockey town, squeezed in the middle of a dense, snowy forest. Its people pulse with the life force of sports and they have a chip on their shoulders, tired of being treated as the runoff by their higher income neighbors. It is a community haunted by its past athletic glories now cast in the shadow of its nearby rivals. But this season is different. For the first time in years, Beartown has a chance to bring home the gold.
Peter, a former Beartown star turned general manager, has spent years piecing together a championship caliber team. All signs point to him standing at the cusp of achieving his goal. His neighbor’s son, Kevin, is the star player for the club and one of the best he’s ever seen. The young athletes are treated like royalty, the town’s de facto saviors.
Following a feverish semi-finals win, the team finds itself one victory away from the title and heads off to celebrate late into the night. Days later, their title hopes evaporate when police arrest Kevin on shocking charges a week before the match. The news plunges Beartown into a perfect storm of paranoia and insecurity testing the ties of the community and straining what little trust remains.
At its core, Beartown is an ode to sports fandom, but it’s also an examination of its darker potential and an all-too-familiar portrayal of the consequences of misused celebrity, even at such a young age. With similar stories peppering headlines on a regular basis, Beartown feels less like fiction and more like a proverb, one that meets us in our cities, our neighborhoods, and our homes.
Weaving between coaches, players, parents, and siblings, Backman creates a panoramic front-row seat from which to witness the story unfold. One might say he has offered readers a new kind of character to embrace—Beartown itself. The community pulses with personality and nuance highlighting a new step in Backman’s maturity as a writer. With Beartown, he sifts beyond the surface to mine the merits we seek in those we deem valuable. Is it merely the talents we enjoy? Or something deeper, invisible to the naked eye?
The novel reads as a timely assessment of the choices we make when reacting to the narratives of victims and their perpetrators. Language and perception are powerful tools as we search for answers to our pain. But so are wealth and reputation. The stories we tell—just like the stories we believe—can give life and they can take it. Without care, facts become crudely fashioned weapons that can quite literally snuff out a person’s humanity.
In a style reminiscent of his earlier works, Backman has crafted a weighty tale that prods at issues closer to us than they appear at first glance. He cautions us to exercise wisdom when choosing those we follow and to care about what we teach, because “Anything that grows closely enough to what it loves will eventually share the same roots.” Beartown is elegant and unsettling, a difficult story that refuses to provide simple answers, but urges us to face the darkness without looking away.
Don’t miss out on 2018’s best books. Join our book club.
Building Your Bookshelf
Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance by Ruth Emmie Lang
Weylyn Grey is unique, to say the least. Orphaned as a child and raised by a pack of wolves, strange events seem to follow him wherever he goes, like massive storms and forests of trees that spring up overnight. Despite his best attempts to fit in, his curious abilities threaten those he comes to love most. Told from the perspective of an array of characters connected to Weylyn throughout their lives, Beasts of Extraordinary Circumstance is the story of a remarkable young man learning what it means to live and to love.
Ginny Moon by Benjamin Ludwig
For years, Ginny has grown up in foster care. Now, she is living with her fourth—and hopefully last—forever family. But no matter how hard she tries, she cannot settle in as she’s determined to get back to a home no one seems to understand. With each passing day, Ginny plots her escape in order to make right a decision she made long ago. Through tender prose and insight, Ginny Moon introduces readers to a young girl they won’t soon forget.
She Rides Shotgun by Jordan Harper
Polly is eleven years old and has never met her father. That is, until Nate McClusky shows up at her school and tells her they need to run. For most of her life, Nate has been in prison, but prior to his latest release he found himself on the wrong side of the Aryan Brotherhood and has been marked for death along with everyone he loves. By the time he reaches Polly, she’s the only one left to protect. She Rides Shotgun is a gritty, fast-paced thriller about a father’s love for his daughter and the lengths he will go keep it.
Cover image by Braden Barwich.