Fredrik Backman’s heralded debut novel, A Man Called Ove, was a surprise bestseller that rose steadily in worldwide sales after its initial rejection by all but one publisher. Beartown is Backman’s fourth novel, the tale of the eponymous village on the edge of a forest—probably in Backman’s native Sweden—where ice hockey is the favored sport. Actually, it’s the only sport. Hockey is what keeps this small, declining community alive, especially this year, when the junior team is headed for the national semifinals.
The team revolves around Kevin, its 17-year-old star who got his first hockey stick when he was 3. He’s surrounded by a loyal band of teammates, each of whom would do anything for their captain. Backman deftly portrays how all of Beartown is invested in the future of the hockey club, and this loyalty is reflected in the lives of the general manager and the club’s coaches.
Peter is the GM, an ex-professional player who returned to Beartown with his wife, Kira, and their two children after a brief NHL career in Canada. Sune, his childhood mentor and now the A-team coach, is about to be fired and replaced by the younger, highly competitive coach of the illustrious junior team—and as the novel opens, the club’s board is asking Peter to break the news to his friend.
This is the first hint of a schism, many years in the making, between the townsfolk: those who believe hockey’s purpose is to teach its players lifelong values, and those who view the club as the key to the town’s very survival.
This quiet, deceptively simple story suddenly implodes when Peter’s 15-year-old daughter, Maya, is raped. She said/he said arguments cause rifts between young and old, newcomers and old-timers—even between members of the same family. Backman traces the impact of this one violent act, not just on Maya and her family, but on all the inhabitants of Beartown, and the lingering effects often ignored in the all-too-similar accounts of sexual violence we read in the news almost daily, wherever we live.