Fredrik Backman has done it again with his newest novel Beartown. He first captured my heart with A Man Called Ove and I have faithfully devoured every page he has written since then. His writing style is simple and straightforward and he metes out his words carefully and with precision. One of my friends described his writing as “two-dimensional”, but I ardently disagree. It is not objects or scenery that Backman attends to heavily, but human emotions and people. His characters and his stories have soul. Consider this passage on parenthood:
The love a parent feels for a child is strange. There is a starting point to our love for everyone else, but not this person. This one we have always loved, we loved them before they even existed. No matter how well prepared they are, all moms and dads experience a moment of total shock, when the tidal wave of feelings first washes through them, knocking them off their feet. It’s incomprehensible because there is nothing to compare it to. It’s like trying to describe sand between your toes or snowflakes on your tongue to someone who has lived their whole life in a dark room. It sends the soul flying.
The bones of this novel is a story about hockey and a small town identified and completely absorbed by the sport. However, Backman cloaks these bones with themes of family, loyalty, violence, sexual identity, and friendship. He does so adeptly and, as with his other novels, he leaves his reader with wet eyes and a throbbing heart.
Beartown is a forest village that is known for one thing and one thing only—hockey. The players are demigods, the sponsors and club management are the de-facto rulers, and the community members are devoted followers, fanatics, keepers of secrets, and tradition bearers.
Hockey is just a silly little game. We devote year after year to it without ever really hoping to get anything in return. We burn and bleed and cry, fully aware that the most the sport can give us, in the very best scenario, is incomprehensibly meager and worthless: just a few isolated moments of transcendence. That’s all. But what the hell else is life made of?
The townspeople are more than passionate about the sport. It’s a way of life. So when an incident at a high school party forces the town to choose between the word of a hockey player and a teenage girl the town erupts into chaos, division, and violence. Friendships are challenged and families are torn apart as the community tries to make sense of what the words truth and loyalty really mean.
The aspect of Backman’s writing that I love the most are the characters that he creates. His heroic characters are not only loveable, but admirable and courageous. His villains are despicable to the core and inspire a visceral reaction in the reader. These people literally leap off the page and into one’s heart or gut, and oftentimes both. Those who, on the surface, appear to be the weakest turn out to be the bravest and strongest, while the seemingly tough turn out to be flimsy people of feeble character. In each chapter the reader is introduced to new characters that are all connected with one another in some way. Backman’s ability to interweave such a broad cast, while deepening the story with continuity, is a remarkable skill.
I choose to refrain from going too much into the plot of the book as it is one that the readers should experience for themselves. Rest assured that hockey need not be one of your favorite pastimes to appreciate this important novel. You can replace hockey with baseball, football, competitive dance, or classical guitar and the themes presented would remain intact and just as poignant. The communities in which we live have such an important role in our lives and the family unit is a community in and of itself. Backman subtly illustrates the important part we play and the responsibilities that come with being a good neighbor, friend, son or daughter, parent, teacher, and coach. Our actions and inactions have meaning and impact on the lives of those around us. A simple message, but in a world with social media and virtual reality it is an essential reminder.
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