Beartown: Over Which We Disagreed Slightly/Tensely/Politely

This month, Snotty Literati tackles Beartown by Swedish author, Fredrik Backman (remember A Man Called Ove in 2012?). He is the author of multiple novels that have had global success. On the surface, this is a sports book; it’s small town hockey. Beartown, Sweden is a small forest town in dire straits. The economy is tanking. More people are moving out than moving in. And the last thing that it has going for it is the high school hockey team, bracing to take the season championship. Celebrating at a house party after securing the semi-finals, one of the Beartown players and the daughter of the team’s GM disappear into a back bedroom. A week later, she goes to the police alleging rape. The day before the finals, the accused is pulled off the team bus and arrested. The town is turned upside down; before the dust settles, sides are taken.

Lara: So, I adored a Man Called Ove, was pretty lukewarm over My Grandmother Told Me to Tell You She Loves You, have yet to pick up Britt-Marie Was Here, and LOVED Beartown. What started as a hockey book that I figured would be a little one note novel turned out to be a more layered story about friendship, secrets, loyalty, and entitlement.

Jennifer: I’m the party-pooper here. I’ve never read Backman before, but, um, I saw the movie of A Man Called Ove, and that was kinda great. I’ve only heard excellent things about his books, so I was eager to read. Now, having finished it, I’d say that it was pretty good. Not awesome. Not bad.

I do think it’s worth noting that we spent a good chunk of time debating over what was appropriate to reveal in this review. Do we let on that this book is actually about a rape? I have to admit that I did not know this going in. So I was surprised. I thought that element of surprise was rather good. Do we preserve that element of surprise for our readers, or spill the beans? What else should we share or conceal? Who the victim is? Who responds in which way? We’re still debating . . .

What made you love it?

Lara: Let me clarify that Kirkus (a biggie in book reviews) spilled the beans about the rape in the first sentence of its review last year. And I just checked… it’s heavily inferred on the dust jacket of the hardcover edition. So, I think it’s fair game.

Jennifer: Whoops. I try not to read back covers. Ha! That’s probably the opposite of what people do . . .

Lara: What I loved. Well, I loved the characters. We have Kevin, the team’s star player. He eats, sleeps, and breathes hockey. His parents are wealthy and disengaged. Dad only cares about Kevin’s stats. There’s Benji, Kevin’s best friend who is from the wrong side of town, full of heart, and loyal. Amat is an outsider. Small for his age. Ignored by just about everyone. And skating his heart out for a spot on the team—he’s faster than hell. GM Peter came back to Beartown with his lawyer wife Kira, their 15-year old daughter Maya, and their 12-year old son Leo after a failed stint with the NHL. There’s Coach David, who’s always at odds with Peter but respected by the team. And, of course, there is Maya (mentioned above), a guitar-playing young girl who loves hanging out with her BFF, Ana, and is crushing hard on Kevin. The setup and delivery read very authentically to me—especially when the story turned to assault and accusation. It was, at times, uncomfortable and, yet, very real.

Jennifer: Well, I’m not going to argue with that. It definitely smacked of real life. I think, if I were to identify my two “problems” (and I should assert that I MOSTLY liked this book), I would say, first, that the author’s topics seemed too trendy or too hot-buttony or too what-we’re-all-talking-about-right-now and, second, there was this authoritative moralizing that kinda bugged me. On the first thing: We hit on all kinds of crazy. It didn’t strike me as especially unique or as touching as, say, what I saw in A Man Called Ove (and I’m doing something so unfair by comparing a book to a movie). As for that second thing, there are quite a bit of sweet, solemn, wise pronouncements that are threaded throughout the book, typically right before or after a space break. They reminded me of those ubiquitous all-knowing Facebook posts issued by those “in the know.” Here are some examples from the book:

“A simple truth, repeated as often as it is ignored, is that if you tell a child it can do absolutely anything, or that it can’t do anything at all, you will in all likelihood be proven right.”


“Never again do you find friends like the ones you have when you’re fifteen years old.”


“Fighting isn’t hard. It’s the starting and stopping that are hard. Once you’re actually fighting, it happens more or less instinctively. . . “

Perhaps it’s the second-person point of view that bugs me. Perhaps it’s the failure to abide by the oft-used dictum “show, don’t tell” (in the book’s defense, the novel shows after it tells). Perhaps it’s because it sounds like a Facebook post I recently read.

Whose story interested you most?

Lara: Let’s not call rape a “trendy” topic. If a trendy best-selling author can write a book that will likely attract thousands, if not millions, of readers—and cover this topic realistically, I think that’s a win. Maya, like many victims, is questioned at length for her actions and what she could have done to provoke the situation or create it.

“She is told all the things she shouldn’t have done: She shouldn’t have waited so long before going to the police. She shouldn’t have gotten rid of the clothes she was wearing. Shouldn’t have showered. Shouldn’t have drunk alcohol. Shouldn’t have put herself in that situation. Shouldn’t have gone into the room, up the stairs, given him the impression. If only she hadn’t existed, then none of this would have happened, why didn’t she think of that?”

It’s interesting. When someone gets robbed, we don’t say, “Well, why do you have a nice house? Why do you buy nice things that people might want to steal?” We also don’t create a victim out of the accused. We don’t say, “You realize that if you press charges, the robber’s life could be ruined. Did you ever think about that?”

The words we use in these situations really matter.

“She’s fifteen, above the age of consent, and he’s seventeen, but he’s still ‘the boy’ in every conversation. She’s ‘the young woman.’

Words are not small things.”

Jennifer: Of course, they’re not. Funny, though, there’s that thing again—that subtle moralizing that bugs me: Words are not small things.

Show me that words are not small things. Don’t tell me.

I’m not saying, hey, don’t deal with rape or gender or x or z. I think I just didn’t like his style. It seemed, um, heavy-handed? I felt like some of the narrative threads could’ve, maybe, be dealt with more fully—like Sune’s story or Ramona’s story.

I am curious about your thoughts on story “ownership.” When we read Gabriel Tallent’s My Absolute Darling, there was some question over whether or not a man could tell this story about a girl being molested. Do you think that question could be asked about this story, in which a young girl like Darling’s protagonist, is raped?

Lara: I am not sure it can be. While Backman is male and we have him writing a story about a 15-year old girl, she’s only part of the story. She’s not the central figure; Turtle was the central figure of Tallent’s book.

And, what happens to Maya is brought to light and judged by the entire Beartown community. So Backman brings many different perspectives—mostly male. There’s a part in the book where David (the team’s coach) is talking to Sune (an older team coach being forced out) about the timing of Maya’s allegation and the suspect’s arrest falling a week after the semi-final and the day before the championship match. David thinks GM Peter (and Maya’s dad) has a beef against the suspect, and is orchestrating this timing and the potential impact it can have on the team. There’s a lot of folks in Beartown who think the community and the team are more important than an individual. An individual who has been raped.

So, back to your question… I think Backman has the right to tell this story.

There are several central characters. Who was your favorite?

Jennifer: I think I liked Amat the best. I might’ve been most interested in the plight of Kira, a mom, a lawyer, and the wife of Peter. I’m not entirely sure. Another beef? We don’t spend enough time with any one character? Unfair? Who was your favorite?

Lara: Amat is great. My favorite, though, was Benji. Backman describes him as having a wild heart. He was a tremendous player, idiot brother, good best friend, and he ended up being one of the better people in the end.

You know what else Backman did well? Was the parents. Parents were on different sides of the scandal and he created them fully, with heart and fault. I think the book is great. There are so many things we can’t cover. You just have to read it and have it unfold.

Jennifer: Man, it sounds like I hated this book, and I didn’t. But it was just okay . . . I’ll end on a positive note. I did like the way he unfolded many different kinds of parent-child relationships. That was well-done!

Lara: It does sound like you did! I For the record, I think he did more showing than telling. But he did do some telling. Faithful readers, take it from me and read this book!

Next Up!

Join us next month when we dissect Chloe Benjamin’s, The Immortalists.

Until then… Happy reading!


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