A seemingly straightforward story about a small town’s hope for its youth hockey team evolves into something much more complex in “Beartown,” the engrossing new novel by Swedish writer Fredrik Backman, whose equally moving 2014 novel, “A Man Called Ove,” gripped readers with its story of a quirky curmudgeon who tries to kill himself.
Within the guise of a sports novel, “Beartown” quickly turns dark as Backman exposes the one-track hearts and minds of some of Beartown’s residents. The isolated community in the novel is in Sweden, but “Beartown” is a universal story of homophobia, sexism and politics that could take place anywhere.
“Small towns need a head start if they’re going to have any chance in the world,” Backman writes, and, as readers soon learn, covering up a heinous crime is not up for debate if the town is going to make economic and social advances. It’s why Backman’s descriptions of screeching hockey parents who yell at coaches and other parents during games — we’ve all seen them — seem almost comical set against the ugly group mentality that takes over after a teen is raped and the Beartown Ice Hockey Club’s star player is accused of the crime.
Current fiction may have no more courageous young female character than Maya, who faces hate and threats after she comes forward about the rape. Backman writes a gritty, heart-stopping account of the sexual assault after which the novel then pivots into even more ominous territory as the town turns on her and her family.
“Beartown” is not just about a sexual assault; it’s also about Beartown families closing ranks and perpetuating falsehoods to protect themselves and the hockey team. It’s also about the all-encompassing culture of youth sports — the physical, mental and emotional commitment demanded of the players (not necessarily a bad thing) and the way that team sponsors, coaches and fans treat players like products rather than human beings.
This novel feels so relevant with its ugly locker room banter, bullying, disrespect of immigrants, dismissal of due process and the town’s blame-the-victim attitudes. Thankfully, some characters see the light. A man who learns that one of the hockey players is gay has an awakening: “Whenever anything, anything at all, was really bad, it was ‘gay’ … It was more than just a concept, it was an adverb, an adjective, a grammatical weapon.”
Don’t expect absolute justice in “Beartown,” but prepare to be uplifted. When a witness to Maya’s rape vividly describes it, “no one in the room will ever forget it.” The same can be said for the memorable “Beartown.”
Carol Memmott also reviews books for the Washington Post and the Chicago Tribune.
By: Fredrik Backman.
Publisher: Atria, 418 pages, $26.99.
Event: In conversation with Julie Schumacher, 7 p.m. June 13, Grace Trinity Church, 1430 W. 28th St., Mpls. Tickets $26.99, includes cost of book. http://bit.ly/2sw4lhQ