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A review of Beartown

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by Fredrik Backman
Atria Books, 2017; 432 pp; $26.99.

Fredrik Backman likes to make people cry. His writing does not punch the reader in the arm and run away, but instead pulls at the most delicate sensibilities, the ones that stay tender from childhood through old age. He covers the loss of a spouse in A Man Called Ove, the loss of a grandparent in My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry, the loss of expectations in Britt-Marie Was Here, and finally the loss of the mind in Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer. He makes the reader long for what was, what could have been, and what may be if the world could live differently.

Backman’s new novel, Beartown,—a book about the culture of hockey in a hockey town—seemed a divergence from theme. Sports novels walk a fine line, balancing technicality with emotion—too much play-by-play and it reads like commentator's notes, but too little and the author loses true sports fans. However, Backman once again unites a world of diverse readers with two simple questions: What happens when people live according to expectations, and what happens when they don't?

The junior hockey team of Beartown aims to bring money, notoriety, and honor back to the small town. This is neither a small nor short-lived pursuit. The town has eaten generations of men in its quest for success. Those that did not make it professionally in the sport now work at the local factory and populate the bar, wishing for their past. However, the way Backman presents this young team makes the reader initially root for them, the ones who fight every opponent, on and off the ice, with the bodies and hearts of bears. The sacrifices of time, sleep, and any relationship beyond the rink seem too much to ask from boys not yet eighteen, not yet men. When the star player perpetrates rape, this becomes the debate at the center of the novel. The town has required them to act like men their entire lives, but, have the men of this town, the fathers, the board members of the hockey club, the "Pack" at the bar, have they made these boys what they are?

Carl Jung, the first to apply the idea of archetypes to literature, thought the father-son dynamic was significant enough to include in his list. The conflict between the two, whether through physical or emotional disparities, can create a tension that radiates to every corner of a plot. From Victor Frankenstein to Harry Potter, readers have seen the villains and heroes father-figures create. The same pressure arises in Beartown. Central character Peter Andersson, the hockey club manager with a paralyzing fear of conflict, is the son of an abusive and alcoholic father. Kevin, the star athlete, exhibits sociopathic tendencies in the glare of the unflinching perfectionism of his father. The boys with no fathers seem to fare the best. They thrive under the guidance of strong mothers. Benji is the son of a nurse and an unstoppable beast of a boy who feeds on pain and drugs, yet he becomes the defender of the weak and honest. Amat is the smallest and newest player on the team, yet he bears witness before an entire town. It is his mother, the rink’s cleaning woman, who gives him courage with these words:

I don't know what you know. But whatever it is, there's clearly someone out there who's terrified that you're going to reveal it. And let me tell you something, my darling boy: I don't need any men…I don't need a man to tell me what I can think and feel and believe. I only need one man: my son. And you're not alone. You've never been alone.

Backman also employs the most seasoned weapon of his craft, the metaphor, to drag this town's social mores up for review. Through his extended metaphors, he dissects the anatomy of the people in a place willing to view a rapist as a victim. One such comparison asks the reader to consider the values of a society with only two kinds of citizens:

When a child learns to hunt, they are taught that the forest contains two different sorts of animal: predators and prey. The predators have their eyes close together, facing the front, because they only need to focus on their prey. Their prey, on the other hand, have their eyes wide apart, on either side of the head, because their only chance of survival is if they can see predators approaching from behind.

In a world like Beartown, where one is either predator or prey, to isolate oneself against the common opinion means certain destruction. Backman asks the reader to consider whose view gives the most perspective? Who, in pursuit of success, has made prey of their own humanity?

In fact, the reader will come upon ideas such as these repeatedly throughout the course of the novel, to the point where one wonders if Backman has forgotten he has already put these phrases to good use. Phrases such as:

This sport demands only one thing from you. Your all.

You can't live in this town, you can only survive it.

Why does anyone care about hockey? Perhaps that depends on who you are. And

But Backman is an author who knows what he's doing. The words sink into the reader's subconscious. They do what all good sports chants do; they stick around long after the game is won or lost. The reader steps away from this book with themes resonating like slogans that turn into questions. One cannot help but ask if it is in fact accurate that "one of the plainest truths about both towns and individuals is that they usually don't turn into what we tell them to be, but what they are told they are." Who helps to make a person who they are? Is it the fathers, the mothers, the peers, or the society in which they grow? How much responsibility does each player hold? The answer is not black and white. It never is—a universal truth in all of Fredrik Backman's novels.

Jamie Sumner has written for the Washington Post,  Scary Mommy, Parenting Special Needs Magazine and others. She is the author of the book, Unbound: Finding Freedom from Unrealistic Expectations of Motherhood. She lives in Nashville, Tennessee with her husband and three children. She is a reviews editor for Literary Mama.

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