4.5 out of 5 stars to Beartown, a 2016 contemporary novel by Fredrik Backman. Although the book had a bit of a difficult start for me, it developed into an emotionally-charged hot bed, triggering anger and frustration over so many things about the human race… and I’m quite glad I read it and enjoyed it. But wow… I haven’t a visceral emotional reaction to words like this in a very long time.
Why This Book
Beartown began showing up on a few of my Goodreads’ friends book lists earlier this year, intriguing my interest. I read the overview and saw many comments that “although the premise is all about a junior hockey team, it’s so much more.” I had a hard time believing that to be true, but thought it might be worth a chance if I could get it from NetGalley. And then I was approved to read it in early April. It took me a few weeks to find the right time in my reading schedule, but it all fell into place last week when I finally took on the book.
Overview of Story
Beartown is a very small town in the middle of a forest far away from everywhere else. It was once bigger and stronger, but the economy has pushed it further and further down a hole — to the point where all they have left is the possibility of a good junior hockey team in the future. Everyone in the town gets involved to some degree, either playing, supporting or raising the players who range from 13 to 17 years old. It’s the place where agents sometimes go to find the next great star of the professional leagues.
But the lack of resources and funding has led to a bitter passion among the residents, who seem to stop at almost nothing to ensure their kids have an opportunity to win their games. Some of the residents are fair and honest. Some are rude and malicious. It’s a typical American sports town, breeding team camaraderie, fueled in some cases by hatred and anger, but in a few others, promoting acceptance and tolerance.
Each of the key team members (8 to 10) has a personal story. Each of the parents and coaches has a vision. Rivalries and favoritism shine all around. And with each passing game, the school must decide what side of the coin they’re on… supporting the team and accepting hockey will always comes first, before education, or fighting back to keep a fair balance. But when someone is attacked, sides must be taken within the school, the team, the hockey league and the town.
It’s a story about hope, control, loss, jealousy, anger, and desire. It’s about parenting styles. It’s about looking the other way for the sake of long-term goals, despite what you may be letting someone get away with in the short term. It’s about how people treat one another. And in so many cases, it is not the way it should be.
Approach & Style
Beartown is told by an omniscient narrator who can look into any character’s head at any moment.
It’s told in the present tense with a few small reflections on the past.
Point of view changes and hops around within chapters, defined by a few spaces between paragraphs.
It’s mostly short sentence structure and paragraphs. Told the way people speak.
1. I am not a big sports fan. I played on a soccer and baseball team when I was younger. And I worked for a sports arena for nearly 20 years. But I have never been interested in hockey. And while the story is too focused in the beginning on the pertinent parts of the sport and rules, it generally has a very good approach to building a fever for the team among us readers. When an author can do that, it’s a strong book.
2. The characters are fairly vivid, each representing a difference slice of life and personality. You will like a few. You will hate many of them. It’s another good thing when an author can deliver this level of emotion. As an example, Maggan Lyt supports her son no matter what he has done. And she’s rude to everyone, lies, believes her own lies and has no sense of morality. She wasn’t a huge part of the story, but she is the epitome of what I hate about what sports can do to a kid. She’s the worst kind of mother and should have been taught a bigger lesson. (I rarely go off on topics, especially like this… but she is what is wrong with so many things right now about how people behave in this world…)
3. The setting is described nearly perfectly. You feel the despair. You see the emptiness. You can tell it’s a freezing cold pit of fear.
4. Views are told from everyone’s angle. And even though you will have pure hatred for some of the people, part of you has a small understanding of why they do what they do. You won’t accept it or like it, but you can see how it happened in Beartown. And you will wonder if that’s what’s happening in so many other towns across the country.
Open Questions & Concerns
During the first 60 to 75 pages, I was a little frustrated at the focus on hockey as a sport the town rallied around. It was slightly boring and difficult to connect. I trudged through, reading 75 pages the first night and the second night. By the third night (last night). I was 35% through and starting to feel that intense sensation where you just don’t want to put the book down, and I finished the last 300 pages all in one sitting (in bed). Intense because I was so angry at the people, the actions and their beliefs. It made me feel sorrow for any town who focuses on sports as the center of their life. I’ve always thought high school sporting teams were full of nonsense. I don’t want to alienate any readers of the book or even my reviews… but I really have to ask the question… Do school sports breed teamwork or do they breed arrogance and nasty habits of accepting things just because you’re on the same team? I’m sure there are good examples of a team building positive traits in children… but this was not one of them. When they’re proud to have injuries… when they support someone who has clearly done something bad because they are on the same team… when they use derogatory language in a locker room because it helps create a bond… that’s not teamwork. That’s humanity at its worst… that’s people thinking they are above others because they have some physical talent for playing a sport. I have little if any tolerance or patience for people like that. Even when I played on teams, sure, I bought into the “rah, rah, let’s win” concept. But the second it crosses that line and because a situation where it’s just bad behavior or the thoughts of the uninformed and lazy, ridiculous politics of small minds, I wish they’d all go straight to hell in a hand-basket. And that’s how this book made me feel – it conjured up those feelings…. and it was really well done. It hit all the hot spots I have about awful sports parents, horrible team members who think they can do anything because they’re a “hero.”
I couldn’t push this up to a 5 for a few reasons:
1. Some of the characters felt too similar / duplicate. I had a bit of a hard time distinguishing them from one another, e.g. which parent is that, what happened to that kid before the game? It could have been a little tighter in this area.
2. I’m a bit unclear on the ending… it was like there were 2 possible versions… and I wanted to know exactly what happened. It also didn’t feel like every character had a proper ending… a few open issues left for me.
Author & Other Similar Books
I haven’t read any other sports-themed books, so I don’t have anything to compare it to from that perspective. But as far as the intensity of your anger or hatred for some of the characters… I would liken it to how I felt about James K. Morrow‘s The Philosopher’s Apprentice.
I’ve ranted a bit here. It’s a powerful book. It showcases many of the fears I have about a good portion of the country. I’m all for team spirit and finding hope in an activity when there seems to be nothing else available; however, if this is a commentary on what it’s like for many towns across the world… my fears are justified. And when a book can share and show that… it’s a really strong one… and worth the read.
P.S. No offense intended to anyone who is a big sports fan, sports parents or sports player themselves. The anger I felt in reading this book is for the negativity steaming off all the wrong things about sports and how they make people act. I’m all for a positive, character-building team sport where the intensity is on the field… and the only thing left off the field is friendship, fair and honest support and an ability to know when to draw the line.
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