CONTENT WARNING: Sexual Violence

Spoilers for the book ahead. You have been warned.

I’ve always identified as ‘a reader’. Reading books is a core part of my identity. From the Scholastic book fairs as a child to wandering through giant book stores as an adult, I’ve always loved books. My tastes have drifted from fantasy, to autobiographies, and back to fantasy, but I’ve always been rooted in fiction.

A couple summers ago, my wife took an audiobook out from the library on a lark. She had a bunch of commutes coming up and needed something to fill the time when she was driving in a straight line (thanks Saskatchewan). She saw a book by the author of A Man Called Ove called Beartown was available, and figured she’d give it a shot. She had quite enjoyed A Man Called Ove, and hopefully, this would be another hit.

And it was. But not in the way that we thought it would be.

Beartown is a tiny community in northern Sweden, stuck in the far side of a forest. The factory is dwindling, the economy is sagging, and people are moving away. Any community faced with this hardship has to rally behind something, and Beartown, is a hockey town. The junior hockey team has a chance to compete in the national semi-finals, and actually have a shot at winning! If they do, it would breathe new life into the community. A hockey academy would be built in Beartown, pouring much needed capital into the community. The hockey team represents hope, a light in the cold, dark winter night that Beartown is going though. At the head of that hope is Kevin, the star player. He’s the one who scores the goals, he’s got the skills and drive that could lead him to the NHL, and he’s the one that’s going to lead the Beartown junior hockey team to national victory.

So when they win that semi-final game on their home turf, it’s cause for celebration. A raucous house party where the players are celebrities. Copious amounts of booze consumed by lightweight teenagers leads Kevin to comit a violent act against Maya, the General Manager’s daughter, that tears the town asunder.

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Beartown was a difficult read for me on a number of levels. First, I come from a small town in northern Canada. I’m intimately aware of the types of people who are drawn to, and remain in, those communities. I keenly aware in how stupid ‘hometown pride’ is, and how important it is to ‘fit in’, to ‘be a team player’, because get on one persons bad side, and suddenly you’re isolated. There aren’t any new friends to make, new jobs to seek out. Everyone knows, or thinks they know, whatever drama has befallen you.

I left my small town the moment I graduated from high school. At 17 I left it behind and moved to the big city of Winnipeg, only returning to visit once a few years later. My mother now lives in a different small town, where I end up visiting once a year or so, and every time I do, I’ve filled with such disdain. I despise the small communities and the people who choose to live away from the urban centres. I’m fully aware that it’s my own bias, but, it’s the feelings that fill my heart.

So that’s tough point number 1. I think hometown pride is stupid, so reading about a group of people who scream “We are the bears from Beartown!”, people to stay in a dying town because they’re ‘tough’, just makes me shake my head. I don’t have respect for that kind of hardheadedness, but, that’s coming from someone who couldn’t wait to leave their hometown. a hometown where there aren’t a lot of good memories left behind.

Beartown doubles down on the team mentality by putting the hockey team front and centre. Everything is for the team, the individual doesn’t matter, the team comes first. Coaches who’ve poured entire lifetimes into the club are thrown aside by the sponsers who think they know better. The players are idols, getting away with calling their teacher ‘sweet-cheeks’ in class, skipping school, proudly proclaiming that they could fuck any girl at the party. There are no concequences for their actions, because they’re the hockey team.

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I’m no longer an outcast, but I sure felt like one when I lived in my hometown. I didn’t fit in, and those who don’t fit in are made keenly aware of it. If the collective turns their back on you, there’s nothing in a small town to seek out. I can’t tell you how much happier I was when I moved to the city and found a group of like-minded individuals. Hell, I wasn’t even that odd, I liked books, anime, video games. I’m a cis-gendered straight man, I can’t imagine the torture that someone who didn’t fit that mould would have felt. In a city, even if a fraction of a percent are of the same mind, it’s still a significant number of people. If there’s drama or a rift within a hobby, there’s other people that you can turn to. It isn’t so insular and suffocating, there’s freedom in being able to piss someone off, without being completely ostracized from your community.

Back to Beartown, and, here’s where the spoilers really set in. Maya, the GM’s 15-year-old daughter, is raped by Kevin, the 17-year-old star hockey player. When I first read the premise of the book, I was really worried that the main conflict of the story was going to be characters trying to cover up the crime so Kevin could play in the final. Instead, as soon as Maya comes forward with her accusations, Kevin is plucked from the bus literally on the way to the final game. Beartown loses the championship, and a rift sets in. Maya is hated by everyone, they cost her everything. “Why couldn’t she just wait until after the game?” “The police shouldn’t be involved, we could have dealt with this internally!” are phrases thrown around by the men in the hockey club.

Fredrick Backman has some really amazing quotes in this book. So many feelings and emotions that I’ve felt in my heart and soul, but never had the words to put them to.

  • “For the perpetrator, rape lasts just a matter of minutes. For the victim, it never stops.”
  • “Culture is as much about what we encourage as about what we permit … That most people don’t do what we tell them to. They do what we let them get away with”
  • “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.”
  • “The love a parent feels for a child is strange. There is a starting point to our love for everyone else, but not this person. This one we have always loved, we loved them before they even existed. No matter how well prepared they are, all moms and dads experience a moment of total shock, when the tidal wave of feelings first washed through them, knocking them off their feet. It’s incomprehensible because there’s nothing to compare it to. It’s like trying to describe sand between your toes or snowflakes on your tongue to someone who’s lived their whole life in a dark room. It sends the soul flying”
  • “It doesn’t take a lot to be able to let go of your child. It takes everything”

Seriously. If I had been reading this on my ebook, I would have been highlighting so many passages. I loved reading this book and coming across passages that just lit up lights inside my head. Giving words to feelings that I’ve been searching for so long. Backman also leans heavily into foreshadowing, sometimes too much for my liking. Every now and then I would feel a passage was written clumsily, but, as you can tell from my entire blog, this is just the pot calling the kettle black.

Beartown has a deep melancholy feeling to it. The weight of the struggle is almost too much to bear. Between friendship, loyalty, honour, and just plain right and wrong, Backman handles the extremely serious and sensitive subject matter with aplomb. One character I particularly loved was Ramona, the old bar owner who’s been drinking her breakfast for a decade, ever since her husband died. There’s a scene where someone is trying to proclaim that “Hockey makes people do crazy things” and she fires right back “Religion doesn’t start wars, guns don’t keep people. It’s fucking MEN” which, honestly, makes me stand up and applaud. So often we pass off responsibility for actions, make excuses for the horrific things that occur, but at the end of the day. Humans are choosing to hurt humans.

Photo by Arina Krasnikova on

The character who I hated the most was the head coach, David. He was supposed to be this shining example, his strategy for building up the best junior team was to pour love into these boys for the last 10 years. Then, when this happens, he’s quick to say “Don’t want to get into politics, I just want to coach hockey”, as if these boys aren’t humans with lives outside the game. David is a soon-to-be parent, but offers no remorse for Peter, whose daughter was attacked. He only bemoans that they didn’t wait to present the crime until after the game. David buries his head in the sand, and, when it becomes clear that Maya and her family aren’t going to run away from town, he turns tail and takes up the head coach position for the rival town’s team. The cowardice this character displays infuriates me. As a parent, I hated his lack of empathy. As a man, I despised his adherence to the status quo.

Beartown explores a lot of themes, as there are a lot of characters, all with their own lives and struggles. Even if the book is spoiled now that you’ve read this blog post, I still highly recommend reading this book. Fredrick Backman made me feel raw feelings that I didn’t really know were there. I know I’ll be continuing onto the sequel, Them Against Us very soon, which, my wife assures me doesn’t let up on the emotional turmoil.

At the end of the weekend, I was left laying on the couch eating ice cream, feeling utterly destroyed. I had somewhat forgotten, in the age of easy to consume content, that art, real art, makes you feel things. It forces you to look at situations and events that are so far removed from our day to day lives. A Pogrom in Romaina is utterly incomprehensible to me, as is sexual violence, but they’re very real things that happen. When we forget that real people go through these traumas, we’re in danger of becoming complacient. Heaven forbid we ever fall so deeply into our own safe little bubbles and think “These things don’t really happen”. As a parent, I’m plauged with intrusive thoughts of harm befalling my children, and it’s something I have to deal with. I can’t protect my children forever, nor will I rob them from the fullness that comes from adventure and exploration. I’ll equip them the best I can, sit back, chew my fingernails and worry, and kiss their wounds that inevitably come from life. But what I can do, is champion that we as people always need to be better. We cannot protect and glorify those who seek to do harm to others. We need to protect the vulnerable around us, and hold those who live in positions of power accountable for their actions. We need to continue to tell the stories that make us uncomfortable. We need to teach everyone around us that we won’t be complacent when evil befalls our loved ones.

I hope this divergnce from board game reviews has been intresting for you. It’s certianly a very different skill, and while I don’t really feel eqipped to offer substitive critics of the art I engaged with this weekend, these blog posts are an accurate represntations of my thoughts and feelings. My heart has been hurting this weekend, and writing about my feelings is a pretty good band-aid.