Thursday, April 19, 2018

Beartown by Fredrick Backman

People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is about to compete in the national semi-finals, and they actually have a shot at winning. All the hopes and dreams of this place now rest on the shoulders of a handful of teenage boys.

Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is the catalyst for a violent act that will leave a young girl traumatized and a town in turmoil. Accusations are made and, like ripples on a pond, they travel through all of Beartown, leaving no resident unaffected.

* * *

We almost unanimously loved A Man Called Ove, so it seemed likely that Mr Backman’s next offering would be just as good. Dare I say that I think it is better? Certainly, the group members had a much higher opinion of this book, although that could have been because we found the central theme, of a small town obsessed with hockey, a little bit more relatable than the struggles of a depressed widower.

Late one evening towards 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.”

It is a cliché of episodic television to show a shocking event and then go back and show the steps leading up to it. While this is a familiar structure, it is also a good way of imposing a sense of tension and doom over events that could otherwise seem relatively innocuous. It also creates not only a ‘why done it?’ but also a ‘who done it?’ that constantly undermines our ability to trust the characters that we encounter. Unfortunately, it is very difficult to talk about the book without revealing the exact nature of the event that precipitates the ‘shotgun to the head’ scenario, so please note:

*** Spoilers below ***

We are introduced to Beartown, which is actually in Sweden, but could easily be in Maine. The local forestry industry is dying and taking the town with it. The only thing left for the townspeople to rally around are their hockey teams. There is a ‘professional’ team, although it seems to be of a very low standard, and the promising junior team, which is having a particularly good year. It should be noted that nobody has any interest at all in ladies hockey, which seems to be an attitude that also mirrors the situation here in Maine. The town has a shared delusion that if the kids’ team wins their championship then everything will be fine again: the town will attract investment and jobs, regaining its sense of pride. Whilst this could be a good focal point for local activities, it has become more of a blind obsession, which is placing unbearable amounts of pressure on the team, especially its star player: Kevin.

This has its benefits, such as unwavering support that the team receives from their fan base. We also see that players with financial problems are helped by the wealthy in the town, but often in a sensitive, anonymous way that does not damage their pride. However, placing so much responsibility on the shoulders of teenage boys creates an awful lot of anxiety, which threatens to overwhelm some of them. It also leads to them being held to very different standards than the other students. They have come to believe themselves above the normal rules of society because they are allowed to be insolent, rude and inconsiderate of other people without rebuke: as long as they play well, they can do no wrong. We see this in an appalling incident told from the perspective of a class teacher at the school, where the team is sexist and disrespectful to her and the head teacher refuses to ‘upset’ them before the big game. This has been happening for a long time for Kevin: we are told that he spends endless hours shooting goals in his backyard, which produces a noise that can be heard by all his neighbors, but none of them complain about it, even when he does it at night or in the early morning.

I can understand that the boys’ parents and supporters see this laxity as a way of compensating the teenagers for the huge amounts of time and energy they spend on their hockey: they give their all to the game from a very early age and seem to have very little other than it in their lives.  However, such a lack of accountability is a dangerous thing and can lead to highly entitled behavior. So, when the team wins their semi-final game and have a party afterwards to celebrate, it is not much of a surprise that they choose to blow off steam with the help of lots alcohol and zero adult supervision. Riding on a high of achievement and unrestrained by self-discipline, Kevin takes advantage of the situation to ply a younger girl, Maya, with alcohol and then invites her to his bedroom. They begin kissing, but when he tries to take it further she tries to make him stop. Even though she repeatedly screams “No!” and fights with him, he holds her down and rapes her. A younger teammate hears her shouts and walks in on them, so she does have a witness to the event and her lack of consent.

Whilst I find this behavior totally abhorrent, I am sad to report that I was not surprised that it occurred. Not one tiny bit. Nor was I surprised that the overwhelming response is to excuse the boy’s behavior and blame the victim, mainly because she did not report the crime straight away.

This reminded me very much of the conviction of Brock Turner for sexual assault and the appallingly lenient sentence that he received and the pleas of his family that the incident “shouldn’t ruin his life”. We see exactly the same victim-blaming and attempts to excuse or condone the attacker’s actions in Beartown. “She must have wanted it because she went to his room.” “She shouldn’t have got drunk.” “She waited until the day of the final to tell the police because she wanted to ruin his chance to play.” Whilst some people are willing to believe Maya’s ‘version’ of events, many more want to persecute her because she ‘ruined’ their chance at winning the title and that is the only important thing to consider.

Needless to say: this made me very, very angry. Also, it made me unutterably depressed because this happens all the time and it seems like we should be better than this. Why is this sexist behavior still alive and kicking in our modern, ‘enlightened’ society?

Fortunately, Mr Backman gives us a little catharsis in a happyish ending. The male witness steps forward to do the right thing even though he risks losing his place on the team and ostracizing the entire community. He bravely stands in front of everyone and speaks the truth. Ultimately, this has no impact on the legal outcome of the accusations leveled at Kevin, but it shows us that not all people will blame the victim: there are still some decent people out there who will hold people to account for their transgressions, regardless of the consequences.

I will not reveal who the characters are in the ‘shotgun scene’, but I will say that the incident is massively powerful and brings a sense of justice to the end of the book. This is supposed to be the first installment of a trilogy, but we are given brief glimpse into the futures of some of the characters. However, some of these are far from the happy ending that we would like to see for all of them, retaining the more realistic tone of the novel. At no point does Mr Backman give us a syrupy, fairy tale resolution to the conflicts that litter Beartown.

I should add that there are plenty of other themes explored in this marvelous book and often by looking at their effects on different age groups. We see grief at the loss of a child, but also of a long term spouse; we follow the struggles of people coming to the end of their careers and near the beginning. Obviously, many of the themes are related to the adolescent experience, especially those of parenting styles, gender identity and peer acceptance. However, we also explore the immigrant experience, both for an adult and a teen, and the diverse experiences afforded by the different social classes in the town. This is a book with a lot in it and it is a most satisfying read. I recommend it very highly.    

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