Wednesday, February 6, 2019

"Beartown" by Fredrik Backman

I am only an occasionally serious hockey fan. I love my Winnipeg Jets, whom I've followed since I was a kid (and I was beyond overjoyed when the team returned to Winnipeg in 2011) -- but I don't follow them obsessively (except maybe during the playoffs, lol)(curse you, Las Vegas Golden Knights, lol).

But hey, I'm Canadian. Even if you're not a huge hockey fan, you can't really avoid hockey here, or absorbing some knowledge of the game by osmosis -- especially if you grow up in a small town.

Which I did. I spent my youth (1960s & 70s) in five different towns in Saskatchewan and Manitoba, the largest of which (by a pretty big margin) was about 13,000 people. In just about all of these towns, social life revolved around the rink(s) and the sports played therein:  figure skating for the girls, hockey for the boys, curling for the adults. (I wrote about my memories of one of those rinks here.) Until I was 14 (when we moved closer to Winnipeg and to the U.S. border), we had just one TV channel (the CBC). Watching TV on a Saturday night in the winter meant you were watching Hockey Night in Canada (and, during playoff season, you got to watch hockey and nothing but on many other nights too).

When I was I was about 6 or 7, and we were living in Saskatchewan -- just a few miles down the road from the site of a tragic bus crash that killed 16 members of a junior hockey team last year -- my dad would sometimes take me to local hockey games with him (after much pleading from me).  He would wrap me up in a blanket and buy me a treat from the canteen, and I would sit on the hard wooden bleachers of the crowded rink & scream myself hoarse. I liked the fights best back then (!). Local rivalries were so intense that, my mother tells me, the RCMP had to escort the visiting team's players from the arena onto the bus, and then escort the bus out of town.

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This is a very roundabout way of saying that I can see why "Beartown" by Swedish author Fredrik Backman -- about a small, declining town in Sweden and its junior hockey team -- has been a bestseller in Canada.

I KNEW this town in my bones. I KNEW these people.

But the book isn't entirely about hockey. It is, but it isn't. (With a little imagination, I think it could just as easily be about a football-obsessed town in the American South. Or maybe a soccer club in smalltown Britain. But I don't think you have to be a hockey fan, or a sports fan, to relate to the story or appreciate it.) It's about the people of Beartown (featuring a broad cast of characters), their relationship to the team & to each other. It's about winning, and losing, and belonging. It's about obsession, the burdens we place on our heroes, and the price we pay for success.

There's an old banner hanging in the Beartown arena that proclaims the hockey club's motto: "Culture, Values, Community."  David, the coach of the junior team, stares at the banner and ponders what it means:
He was sitting in this precise spot when he was twenty-two, thinking exactly the same things. Sune [the longtime coach of the A-team] was sitting beside him then. David asked about the banner, asked what it meant to Sune, and Sune replied: "Community is the fact that we work toward the same goal, that we accept our respective roles in order to reach it. Values is the fact that we trust each other. That we love each other." David thought about that for a long while before asking: "What about culture, then?" Sune looked more serious, choosing his words carefully. In the end, he said: "For me, culture is as much about what we encourage as what we actually permit."  
David asked what he meant by that, and Sune replied: "That most people don't do what we tell them to. They do what we let them get away with." 
David closes his eyes. Clears his throat. Then he stands up and walks down toward the ice. Doesn't look up at the roof again. Banners have no meaning this week. Only results. [Chapter 26, page 210]
This passage said so much to me about the world we live in right now:
Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion. The world becomes 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.  
So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that's easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe -- comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy... 
It doesn't take long to persuade each other to stop seeing a person as a person. And when enough people are quiet enough for long enough, a handful of voices can give the impression that everyone is screaming. [Chapter 35, p. 273] 
It's a tense, dark book, almost right from the beginning (a great winter/hockey season book!) -- and it gets much darker as the story goes on -- but it's uplifting and affirming too. I found it hard to put down.

"Beartown" has been a "Heather's Pick"at our mega-bookstore chain here in Canada, and on several other recent "best" lists. Modern Mrs. Darcy has recommended it frequently, and it's an upcoming pick for one of the library book clubs hereabouts that I hope to join soon (which is one reason why I read it now). (The discussion should be pretty interesting, I think...!)

Personal note: I was amused to read about the town's intense rivalry (hockey-wise and otherwise) with the larger town down the road, Hed.  Hed is a real town in Sweden -- and, coincidentally, some of my Swedish ancestors came from there, or thereabouts. :)  Maybe that's another reason why this book resonated with me.

And, ALI spoiler alert: one of the families featured has experienced the loss of a child, and is still dealing with the grief and its repercussions, years later. There's a lot here about grief and loss (and dealing with it, or not) and parenting and protecting our children (or trying to) that was all too familiar.

I would give "Beartown" 4.5 stars on Goodreads -- but since I can't give half-stars, I wound up giving it five. :)  I think that (properly done) it would make a great movie, or TV series or mini-series (and I learned, via Google, that a Swedish production company has a TV version in the works). Backman has written a sequel, "Us Against You," which I will probably read too, eventually :) -- so it looks like there's plenty of material to keep a show going for quite a while.

(If you want to read a really good (non-fiction) book about hockey, I would highly recommend "The Game" by Ken Dryden, legendary goalie for the Montreal Canadiens. Dryden writes as well as, or even better than, he played hockey. He has also been a TV broadcaster/host, a member of Canada's Parliament, and an executive with the Toronto Maple Leafs.)

This was book #4 that I have read in 2019 to date, bringing me to 17% of my 2019 Goodreads Reading Challenge goal of 24 books.  I am (for the moment, anyway...!) 2 books ahead of schedule to meet my goal. :)

1 comment:

  1. It sounds excellent - all that ice-hockey notwithstanding! lol (It is not a sport played in NZ, so unfamiliar to me. Though I laughed at the thought of little Loribeth loving the fights!)

    Books writing about hate, and culture, and importantly, "what we let them get away with," is so important today.