Book Review: Beartown by Fredrik Backman

“The story was okay.  I just didn’t care about the characters.”

It’s not uncommon for members of the Wine Lover’s Book Club to offer this comment about a book we’ve read (in between stuffing our faces with meatses and cheeses and wineses).  Sometimes we don’t care about the characters because they are unlikable, but other times it’s just because they are…well, bleh.  Or, to be more specific, lacking depth in their thinking and doing.

In Fredrik Backman’s books, you will not find this problem.  

BeartownI just finished reading Beartown, a story about a small town nestled in a Swedish forest.  It’s a town suffering from a lack of economic opportunities, but equally important to the story, it’s a hockey town.  Most people in the town are weirdly (to my non-sports-loving mind) obsessed with hockey.  Not only do they love the sport, but they are hanging their hats on the strength of the junior ice hockey team—think 17-year olds—to secure political and financial commitment for the building of a hockey academy in the town, hoping it would lead to an economic boon.

Amidst this backdrop, there are more than a dozen characters that Backman brings together to tell a story that is, frankly, hard to read at times.

There is all sorts of violence: adult violence towards a child, sexual violence, physical and online bullying.  It’s ugly to read, especially since it feels like it could all be happening in any town, in any country.  Backman’s writing about the violence isn’t gratuitous or graphic.  The worst parts are the silent witnesses who just go along.

For me, what saved the book, what helped me keep reading it, are the moments of goodness.  A friend stands up for his friend,even though it means he will also be beaten up.  A big, hulking teenager makes friends with a smaller, younger player, feeling the connection of both being on the outs, growing up on the “wrong” side of town.  With a few exceptions, each of the characters makes both good and bad choices.  Even the characters that make more bad choices than good are treated by Backman with empathy.  He reminds us that what we see on the outside doesn’t tell the whole story about a person.

Like in his other books I’ve read—A Man Called Ove and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry—Backman gives us the old and wise characters in Beartown.  He draws the reader’s attention to people with a lot of life experience and wisdom who our culture tends to marginalize and overlook.  Besides the “old and wise,” these books also include a range of interesting characters, quirky but mostly realistic, although I found the books themselves to be more uplifting than Beartown. (Note: There’s also a sequel.)

If you are looking for a good book with characters you will care about—and you aren’t prone to feeling emotionally beaten up by books with difficult and frustrating circumstances—give Beartown a try.   

My Rating:  4 Stars

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