Note: This book contains adult themes, as well as an event that may trigger some survivors of sexual violence.
It is a book about a small town in Sweden called Beartown, which has been down on its luck lately. The entire town revolves around a hockey team. Since Peter Andersson, now the general manager of the club, almost won the championship 20 years ago, there has been nothing good in the life of Beartown Hockey. Now, the junior hockey team is making a deep playoff run, led by superstar Kevin Erdhal. The story focuses on an ensemble cast, featuring the players and the people who support and interact with them.
Beartown is surrounded by a forest that seals off the town from the outside world. It is a long drive anywhere outside the town, which prevents some characters from working elsewhere. The children play near the forest, and the hunters hunt in the same place. It features a lake the children skate on in winter. When she was young, Maya Andersson, Peter’s daughter, almost died falling through the ice. The forest constantly encroaches on the townsfolk. The common phrase used by the people states, “Bears shit in the woods, and everyone shits on Beartown.” The residents of Beartown struggle with many things, but the forest is a constant threat. This is not to say that the forest is always a problem. To some characters, nature is their safe haven from the rest of the world.
Nature is not the only setting in the novel. The other main location is the ice rink, in which the struggle of Kevin and the team is showcased. The team members and administration also struggle with balancing hockey excellence and time with their family and friends. The people of Beartown are lost in the world. The local political body has always said that the town is a top priority, but the people have been given nothing for years. They know that everything rides on the large hockey tournament. Every year, more people lose their jobs. The forest moves in, pushing them further into obscurity.
Beartown is easily one of the best books I have read in the past year. It uses language the average high school student can read, but discusses themes important to all ages. That being said, I think the people who would most identify with the book are the relatives of very enthusiastic sports fans. The concept of the book is based on the questions: What will people do for their team? What does it mean when one’s core belief system is the good of their team? This can be a literal sports team, as in Beartown, or another organization that takes over one’s life. The family members of people in such situations will understand the conflict they see in their loved ones between doing the right thing and doing what’s good for the team. This book explores how that conflict affects the family unit.
Backman effortlessly tells a tale that features many different characters. His transitions are seamless. He includes a wide variety of characters, many of which I will not describe, due to spoiling the plot and for the sake of time. He manages to fit a full character in for all of them. Each has a set of complex beliefs and motives that influence how they act. Backman does all of this while simultaneously providing amazing background information, containing detail but not enough to make the description tedious. This goes for characters as well as locations. Many people in the book are unnamed and referred to by their occupation or relationship to the other characters. This gives the reader an easier time memorizing only a handful of names and makes the large cast possible. It also forces the reader to focus on the important characters.
The plot reveals a lot about the people of Beartown, and by extension, many superfans around the world. Backman shows the social discourse about a particular event. It is both a complex issue and a very simple one. To anyone outside the book, there is only one response to the issue. But to the characters, there are many possible reactions. Each character does the “right thing,” but that means different things to different people. It says a lot about what people are willing to do for their town’s livelihood and the difference between what is best for the collective and what is best for each individual.
While writing this review, I gave the book a slightly lower rating because of this discourse. While it was interesting, I thought Backman’s choice to include both sides was a little risky. This is not to say that Backman does not take a side. He shows his support for the morally correct argument by focusing on the characters with that point of view. This allows him to show how it feels when someone is ostracized for going against the grain. Backman makes every character’s opinion about the event known in the final 200 pages of the book, with room to spare for developing side plots.
Backman's skill as a writer is exemplified in his ability to speed through a long plotline while making each part feel perfect. He tells both sides of a complicated story, but makes the morally correct answer more prevalent. Because of this, I decided to instead give Beartown a rating of five out of five. The book makes you hate the perpetrator of the crime and empathize with the victim, even if one has never been in a similar situation. It evokes strong feelings about the topic by showing how some people shrug it off as an “off-ice problem.” It’s no wonder that HBO Europe has allowed for the creation of a five part miniseries about Beartown. Beartown is a spectacular book, and everyone old enough to understand the plot should read it.
Izzy Weitzman is a 14-year-old person from New York City. He is a freshman at Bard High School Early College Queens, and lives with his parents, his brother, and his brother’s turtle. He loves Magic the Gathering and reading books.
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