Sometimes you read a book that takes a long time to finish. It’s not because the book isn’t riveting or because you aren’t enjoying it. “Beartown,” for example, is not a quick read — it’s much, much more than that.
“Beartown” by Fredrik Backman is the kind of book that contains such a plethora of beautifully put together sentences, poetry almost, that the reader is compelled to read them, stop, think, read them again, and do it all yet again.
The philosophy, the wisdom, the absolute beauty of Backman’s language is not the only reason that this book is a slow read. There is also the story — and it’s a heck of a story. It’s about loyalty, courage, love, honor, and family. It’s also about failure, losing everything that’s important, selfishness, lack of accountability, and the worst behavior of the rich and successful.
Hockey, and the hockey club in Beartown in particular, is the center of the story and, as Backman told a group of fans during a signing, “The town is very much the main character in the story.” He uses the town, a small town on the edge of a forest, with the hockey club the only thing keeping the town alive, as a vehicle from which all the other characters’ feelings are reflected. “I’ve been to those kind of towns a lot,” he commented.
“Bitterness can be corrosive; it can rewrite your memories as if it were scrubbing a crime scene clean, until in the end you only remember what suits you of its causes.”
Many of the characters in the story feel that way. Life has not turned out the way it was supposed to. They were told they would be famous and successful, and they are working in a factory with nothing to look forward to.
“…and gives rise to the sort of corrosive bitterness that never leaves some men, that can wake you in the middle of the night and make you think someone has stolen the life you should have had.”
There is a lot of bitterness and anger in the story. There is also a lot of joy. The people in Beartown love hockey with all their hearts — the good and the bad parts of hockey. And hockey is what makes their blood sing, their hearts rejoice, and their town come together.
“When you lose in hockey it feels like having your heart scalded. When you win, you own the clouds. Beartown is a heavenly town this evening.”
The story includes characters from every walk of life and every stage. There are the children, some fifteen and some seventeen. They are all still children. There are the adults who are not yet parents, and the adults who are the parents of the children and have to deal with the mistakes that their children make. Some parents come to the realization that they have protected their children too much while others realize that not matter how hard they try, they can’t protect their children.
“Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion. The world becomes much easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard. It makes demands. Hate is simple.”
So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that’s easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe — comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy.”
When one of the hockey players does something despicable and then lies about it, whom does the town believe? The star hockey player — all brilliance and talent, young and supremely self-assured, the town’s hero — or the young daughter of the hockey club’s general manager. Things turn ugly.
Backman treats almost all the characters with tenderness. Even the most brutal hockey player has a soft side, the person who could easily have been the weakest turns out to be the strongest, and many of the children are much more perceptive than the adults.
While Backman seems to have written a book about hockey, it’s not really about hockey — it’s about life and people coming together. Backman brings diverse characters together to create conflict, and he does it beautifully. He also uses those same characters to show how family — including the extended family that is made from those who love and respect you — is an important support system. He contrasts that with decisions that the conflicted characters must make alone. That contrast, between being alone and having an all-important support system, is a large part of the story.
Backman has explained that he uses small settings because it’s easier to create conflict when people are forced to interact with those who are different from them. “In big cities,” he explained, “you can live and work with people just like you. People can live, shop, belong to clubs, and do almost everything with people just like them.”
“Another morning comes. It always does. Time always moves at the same rate, only feelings have different speeds. Every day can mark a whole lifetime or a single heartbeat, depending on who you spend it with.”
Do our mistakes make us who we are just as much as our successes? Backman might argue that it’s true. But as with everything Backman writes, the argument would be written impeccably, utterly beautifully, and in words that need to be read and reread, many times.
No review can summarize the story effectively or do it justice. It can only share the quality that makes this book a very special one. A book club could spend hours — days, even — discussing the many ideas and beliefs that are presented in the story. Read it slowly and enjoy.
Please note: This review is based on the final hardcover book provided by the publisher, Atria Books, for review purposes.