‘Beartown’ – Fredrick Backman

Beartown is one of those books that will haunt me, and though the subject matter has been done before there was nothing routine about this.

I have loved all of the books by Backman that I have read, and though I’d had this on my radar for a while I had never really felt in the mood for reading it. The subject of rape and how it is dealt with in the community is always problematic, and this is entirely true in the community of Beartown.

People say Beartown is finished…But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded town. And that rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior hockey team is about to compete in the national championships, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of the town now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

With that kind of power comes responsibility, and Beartown poses some interesting questions about the extent to which we are – as a community – repsonsible for the conduct of those within it.

The opening chapter gripped me from the off, and I loved the realisation (once I eventually got to the end) that it wasn’t quite what I expected. The novel focuses initially on the setting up of Beartown as a community. It is a crumbling town, where people are moving away in droves and it takes a particular kind of hardy soul to make their life there. The majority of inhabitants are obsessed with ice hockey – and though this is not a sport I have much experience of, the role of the team in the lives of the players and how sport can affect the community is pivotal. Understanding the sense of belonging the team gives to the boys is crucial – as it explains (though in no way justifies) the way some of them behave later.

In celebration of their achievements on the ice, the star player hosts a party. It’s been done before. Unfortunately, this time the fifteen year old daughter of the team manager is invited. Maya is naive, but it does not excuse what Kevin does. He rapes her…and what happens next is, sadly, all too common.

Maya is determined, eventually, to be brave. She does not hide away, though she knows the devastation her telling the truth will cause. The repercussions in the community are far-reaching and few are unaffected. However, it was a thought-provoking exploration of character to consider how each of our large cast responded to the events talked about.

There are a lot of characters within these pages, and each of them has a story to tell. Backman shows us their lives – their often miserable, petty lives – but he bestows on them a gravitas and dignity that I found myself admiring. Some of them are more endearing than others, but I liked the fact that Backman shows us each of them without hiding their flaws.

As we drew close to the end there was a clear sense of trying to prepare us for the story continuing in the second book, Us Against You. I have to say that I cannot wait to read it.