Late one evening toward the end of March, a teenager picked up a double-barreled shotgun, walked into the forest, put the gun to someone else’s forehead, and pulled the trigger.
This is the story of how we got there.
In the forest, there’s a town that loves hockey, whose identify is defined by the cuts of skates on ice, the check of bodies on the boards. When one of their own rapes a classmate right before the game that could change the fortunes of the dying town, the question becomes –who and what does Beartown love most?
Admittedly, this is the longest distance between the date I’ve read a book and reviewed a book. I finished Beartown shortly before I started this blog and I always meant to go back and review it. None of the other books I’ve finished recently really lent themselves to being reviewed (or, I didn’t really want to review some of them), and so this seemed like a good time to pull Beartown back out.
Beartown is one of those books that sits with you—it’s impactful as you’re reading it, as you finish, and even months later. Backman’s writing in A Man Called Ove was impeccable—he takes that vocabulary and skill and applies it to a harsher topic in Beartown. Where A Man Called Ove made you love a curmudgeon whose heart was, despite all appearances, too big for his body, Beartown makes you love and hate and rage at a small town torn apart by a date rape. It still feels like yesterday that I finished this book and I can feel the lump rising in my throat as I flip through the sections I marked and as I type this review.
Beartown’s events detail how a date rape happens and one version of the impact, though a common version. Rape can happen to anyone—there is no one who is immune from this awful possiblity. And when it happens, the victims (usually, but not always, girls and women) are overwhelmingly not believed. They are “encouraged” and they are threatened to take it back, to consider the impact on the man, the family, the team, the town. Women are sacrificed at the altar of men’s reputations every day. Beartown is Everytown. Beartown is how we get to #metoo—because many, many girls and women do not want to survive what the survivor goes through in Beartown.
And yet, Beartown is a beautiful book. It’s fair that there are (probably a lot) of people who don’t want to read a book about rape. Who have experienced it (1 in 4 women), who know someone who has (everybody—whether you know it or not), and so do not want to read a book about rape. I absolutely get that and wish you nothing but light and hope if that is you. But don’t let this book turn you off just because a rape is the inciting incident. There is tenderness and love in Beartown. There is a Mama Bear whose heart made me want to rage right next to her. A boy whose outward bruiser appearance belies the tenderness within him. (I wanted to wrap Benji in a warm blanket and give him a place to rest, though he’d certainly have resisted.) There is a bullied child, given the opportunity to become an insider, but at a cost that may turn him into someone else entirely. There is a victim who becomes a survivor, a woman strong enough to live and move on, despite everything she endured that night and the months and years that followed.
With everything happening in the media, this book feels so timely and true—everyone who is emotionally able should read this book.
But so…it’s a sports book?
The heart of Beartown is its hockey rink, so much of the plot revolves around this rink and it’s teams. I am not absolutely sports inept (I love baseball) but I know next to nothing about hockey. This knowledge isn’t necessary, nor does the fact that it’s about hockey take away from the overall plot. Backman sets up what you need to know—that hockey defines this town, these people, circumscribes the culture.
A common refrain I’ve heard from the many other women who’ve read this book is that they thought the hockey part would detract from the story or would otherwise affect their interest, but it didn’t. The set up within the hockey rink, however, gives the book a solid cross-gender appeal and is a book I think even stereotypically masculine cis-men find relatable and compelling.
It would take days to discuss the various characters Backman created, nor do I want to spoil every bit of character development, so I’ll refrain from discussing most of the characters and only go into a few below (and not even discuss some of my favorites, like Benji). It worth note, however, that with his skill Backman manages to present even minor characters who don’t show up often (like Ann-Katrin) with a depth directly inverse to the amount of words spent on them.
While there is a clear villain and Backman is not morally vague about his wrongs or the wrongs of the town, he also does a surprising job at humanizing the rapist. You can see how this kid got to where he is, the pressure people put on him…and yet you never feel so sorry for him that you excuse his actions. It’s a razor-fine line that Backman balances on so effortlessly you almost miss the skill with which he presented the rapist to the reader.
There are things fifteen year-old children should never have to experience. And while the obvious thing here is rape, another example is to have a friend be a victim of such a crime. Where you were when it happened, how you responded, how you respond now are all impossible enough when your brain isn’t still developing, when Facebook and texts and high school aren’t still a thing. God forbid, should such a thing ever happen to a child I know, may they have a friend like this survivor’s friend.
Within the larger story is also a theme of what it means to be an “insider” – who is “us” and who is “them.” Like almost anywhere else, Beartown is divided socioeconomically with the poor kids—the ones who rarely become good at hockey because they can’t afford the equipment, the lessons, the time to practice—so often left on the outside. Yet in skates little Amat–not-white within the homogeneous milk-white of Beartown’s racial landscape—and poor to boot. Backman makes you love Amat, cheer for Amat, cringe and wring your hands at his choices, and the cost he’s apparently willing to pay to be inside. Amat is a high school everyman and I loved him.
Generally speaking, Backman also does a commendable job making his characters diverse. There is a gay character whose inclusion could easily feel like it was done as a token inclusion in anyone’s hands other than Backman’s. There are characters of color and from a wide swath of Beartown’s socioeconomic strata. I defy you to read this book and not find at least one character you identify with.
I could wax poetic about Fredrick Backman’s writing. He has these pithy turns of phrase (“Amat sat in the corner, doing his best interpretation of an empty corner”) and descriptions that make you laugh and feel like you were right there (“the president is sitting at his desk eating a sandwich the way a German shepherd would try to eat a balloon filled with mayonnaise.”). He also has stretches of beautiful prose, of short truisms that never feel trite and cut deeply as they land.
The feat accomplished here is all the more impressive when you consider that the book is translated and yet the writing still holds up so well. The writing isn’t overly flowery or poetic, there’s nothing that feels lofty. Backman is both genius (who describes someone as a dog eating a balloon of mayonnaise…and yet you know exactly what he’s describing) and down to earth (see, again, balloon of mayonnaise). Because the style makes the book so accessible, Beartown is a surprisingly easy read, necessary when you consider the difficulty of the topic. The writing also lends Backman’s books to being easily enjoyed on audio—I loved A Man Called Ove on audio and, while I have not listened to Beartown, would expect no different of this one.
Ending (No Spoilers…Mostly)
Because this is a Fredrik Backman book, the ending is bittersweet. There is redemption for most of the major characters. Of course, not every rape story ends this way—many people aren’t able to seek the help they need, are never believed, are never able to recover fully or even mostly. Because of this, I can see (though haven’t heard) Backman drawing some criticism for prettying up his victim’s ending. It would be foolish to assume that every victim can be as resilient as the victim—there are a myriad factors that enabled the victim to end where she does when Beartown ends, many of them out of her control. Because of this, this survivor should not be the measuring stick against which other victims are judged. I ultimately have no problem with the way Backman ended his book on a mostly redemptive note, so long as this ending isn’t seen as representative or possible for all victims.
Published April 25, 2017 by Atria Books (@AtriaBooks)
Author: Fredrick Backman (@backmansk)
Date read: July 15, 2017
Rating: 5 stars, in top five books of 2017