Beartown

Beartown by Frederik Backman
Reviewed by Abigail Murrish

You can’t visit Beartown, but you’ve probably been there.

Beartown is the setting (and title) of Frederick Backman’s 2016 novel, set in the snowy forests of Sweden. Beartown is a dying town whose hope seemingly rests on their hockey team. Beartown native and former-NHL-player-turned-team manager Peter has developed a team of young hockey elites to represent the town and lead them to victory in a national championship game, and hopefully bring revival to their town.

And he’s been successful. As the book begins, a group of talented young men are preparing  But as the team arrives at the final match, Kevin Erdahl, the team’s star player, is arrested on charges that reverberate through the community and divide the town.

The reader not only identifies with the characters,
the town also captivates the reader’s imagination.

Though the reader’s attention is absorbed by the discussion of hockey, the book goes beyond sports genre by considering how our identities (and subsequently, our actions and behaviors) are woven together with our longings and desires. Beartown dismiss passionate hockey fans and participants as being bad, silly or ridiculous. Instead, he shows how hockey is woven into the identity of the town and how many of town’s hopes rests on the sport and the local team. As the opening chapters of the book unfolds, the reader is rooting for the players, coaches, families.Their passion for hockey is practical and understandable.

As Backman develops his characters and settings in the first half of the book, the reader understands that hockey isn’t just a game for Beartown. “We devote ourselves to sports because they remind us of how small we are just as much as they make us bigger,” says the narrator. Hockey in Beartown is more than a sport; it is worshiped and revered as a messiah, and its players are its anointed prophets.  Beartown examines what an individual, family and community are willing to sacrifice for this god.

As the hockey player is investigated for crime, the reader connects the crime with the culture surrounding the sport and the reverence bestowed on the players. As the investigation develops, allegiances are drawn between the victim and perpetrator and hockey’s formative power in the community is clear.

Beartown unfolds through the perspectives of players, coaches, parents, friends, siblings and community members, offering a sweeping perspective of what’s happening in Beartown. Backman expertly develops the setting as a character of its own. The reader not only identifies with the characters, the town also captivates the reader’s imagination.

“Our wants and longings and desires are at the core of our identity, the wellspring from which our actions and behavior flow,” writes philosopher James K.A. Smith, who examines the formative power of sports in communities in his work on cultural habits, practices and structures. For the residents of Beartown, winning hockey rests at the heart of their longings and desires, and that forms the social structures and patterns of the town’s residents. And when that identity is threatened and shaken, the community members must reckon with idolization of hockey.

We see our society’s stories played out on the pages. Readers can find themselves on the pages too, as they meet Backman’s characters and consider who they are in the story. The Beartown of the novel is nestled in forests of Sweden. But readers don’t have to venture over the ocean to visit. They will likely find the town in their very own communities.  Beartown is a compelling tale about cultural gods, their power to shape communities and the dark side of that power.

Washington Square Press, 432 pp