“Sooner or later any sports team has to decide what it really wants to achieve, and Beartown is no longer content merely to play. They’ll replace Sune with the coach of the junior team, for one simple reason: when Sune talks to his players before matches, he gives long speeches about them playing with their hearts. When the junior team coach stands in the locker room, he says just one word: ‘Win.’ And the juniors win. They’ve done nothing else for ten years.
It’s just that Sune is no longer sure that’s all a hockey team should consist of: boys who never lose.”
Okay, first of all, in finally sitting down to write this review, I have just now discovered that Backman is working on a sequel. I am decidedly ambivalent about this. First of all, NOT EVERYTHING NEEDS A SEQUEL. Some things, you can just leave them be! And this was a perfectly contained book. It said what it needed to say and it got out on a high note (the ending retroactively made me enjoy the book more). But also, I don’t know if I can really complain if Backman wants to spend more time dwelling on the toxic culture of entitlement and unchecked masculinity that led to the events in this book. The more light shed on that topic, the better. And he does it here with such care and complexity.
My book club has now read two of Backman’s books (this and A Man Called Ove), and of the two, I enjoyed this one more. It’s got a weight to it that I really appreciated (not to mention, he finally breaks from his formula of writing about quirky and crotchety older characters being saved by the power of love, or whatever).
Beartown is a small Swedish hockey town. It used to be a hockey and factory town, but the factory has been laying off more and more people, and in such a tough economic climate, and with Beartown being so isolated geographically, its residents cling that much harder to the hockey team, which is on the verge of bringing them some economic relief. Their young up-and-coming juniors coach has been shepherding a team of players since elementary school. This includes their star, Kevin, who is fully expected not only to someday head to the NHL, but in leading his current team to victory, bring the new hockey school to Beartown, injecting some much needed fuel into the local economy.
I don’t want to spoil too much of the story, but I do want to mention that all the tension of a rather sizable cast of characters leads to one character raping another just before the championship game, and then follows the same characters through the fallout from the rape. I was a bit wary going in to see how a male author would handle the rape, but it’s clear Backman did heavy research on many fronts, not least of which being research into rape survivors and their behavior, legal ramifications, social reactions, etc. The hockey and boys clubs aspects of it also felt really, really real. And from the cryptic author’s note after the book, I thought it was pretty clear that many of his sources had lived through some real-life version of the events in the book. It was almost eerie how closely many of the characters skewed towards the real-life sports and rape related responses I read in Jon Krakauer’s Missoula a couple years back.
Probably the most notable thing I can say about this book, though, is that it doesn’t become an Issue Book (think Jodi Picoult). There’s lots of other stuff packed in here, too, and Backman’s characters (even the ones who think and act reprehensibly) always feel real, like they are the focus, and not any specific message Backman is trying to get across.
Obviously YMMV on the subject matter, but if it’s not something that bothers you to read about, I’d recommend this one, especially if you’re at all into thinking critically about the harmful culture that can surround sports like hockey (worth noting, this book doesn’t slam sports, it also does a really great job of showing what can be valuable about playing a sport and being part of a team).