I read “Beartown” by Fredrik Backman for the first time in the summer of 2017, and I re-read the book this past summer because the sequel was released in July. Both times, I was struck by the language, the characters and the story.
Beartown is a small town in the woods that has been in a gradual decline. Businesses are moving to the more prosperous town outside of Beartown limits; the factory, which supplies most of Beartown’s jobs, is laying off more and more people. But there’s hope. The junior ice hockey team has a chance of winning the national semifinals. If they go on to win the finals, the town could be revitalized: the council would build a new hockey school in Beartown, and with it would come a shopping center, better infrastructure, and much-needed jobs. Beartown would become a destination, rather than a place you pass through on your way to somewhere better.
Everyone in the town knows this, and they also know that their hopes rest on the shoulders of Kevin Erdahl, the junior hockey team’s star player. Kevin knows this, too. After winning the semifinal game, Kevin is interviewed by the local paper. He signs autographs for children and takes pictures with their mothers. Amat, one of Kevin’s teammates, experiences this atmosphere for the first time: “The rush lifts him up, his endorphins are bubbling, and afterward he will remember thinking: ‘How can anyone possibly experience this without thinking he’s a god?’”
This feeling of invincibility incites a violent act at a team party later that night. A 15-year-old girl leaves the party in tears. Kevin is bleeding from scratch marks on his hand, and the next day his neck “is red and blue on one side, as if he’s been punched hard by someone with small hands.” Amat is the only one who saw what happened—he barged in during the attack.
It takes a while for the girl to come forward, because she knows what it will mean for her, for her family and for the town. She knows the town will turn against her—and she’s right. After a description of the attack, Backman writes, “They will ask her about the alcohol and the marijuana. They won’t ask about the bottomless terror that will never leave her. About this room with its record-player and posters, from which she will never really escape again.”
The girl comes forward the day of the finals, and police pull Kevin off the team bus for questioning. He isn’t able to play in a game that is more than just a game for Beartown. The town is outraged. The girl is ostracized. Everyone sees her family as having had an agenda in coming forward when they did. To me, this sounds eerily like what is going on in the wake of the Ford and Kavanaugh hearings. Now, more than ever, “Beartown” feels timely.
Backman’s characters also feel real. They’re flawed and complex. The way the girl’s allegations are handled in the book echoes the way similar allegations are being handled across the country. I believe in the power of fiction to make things feel personal, to help us understand and build empathy. In this current climate, that’s why I believe everyone should read “Beartown.”
Reviewer Adison Godfrey is a graduate assistant at WPSU.