“You’ll love this engrossing novel.” —People
Named a Best Book of the Year by LibraryReads, BookBrowse, and Goodreads
From the #1 New York Times bestselling author of Anxious People, a dazzling and profound novel about a small town with a big dream—and the price required to make it come true.
By the lake in Beartown is an old ice rink, and in that ice rink Kevin, Amat, Benji, and the rest of the town’s junior ice hockey team are 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.
Under that heavy burden, the match becomes 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.
This is a story about a town and a game, but even more about loyalty, commitment, and the responsibilities of friendship; the people we disappoint even though we love them; and the decisions we make every day that come to define us. In this story of a small forest town, Fredrik Backman has found the entire world.
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Chapter 1 1
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.
It’s a Friday in early March in Beartown and nothing has happened yet. Everyone is waiting. Tomorrow, the Beartown Ice Hockey Club’s junior team is playing in the semifinal of the biggest youth tournament in the country. How important can something like that be? In most places, not so important, of course. But Beartown isn’t most places.
Bang. Bang. Bang-bang-bang.
The town wakes early, like it does every day; small towns need a head start if they’re going to have any chance in the world. The rows of cars in the parking lot outside the factory are already covered with snow; people are standing in silent lines with their eyes half-open and their minds half-closed, waiting for their electronic punch cards to verify their existence to the clocking-in machine. They stamp the slush off their boots with autopilot eyes and answering-machine voices while they wait for their drug of choice—caffeine or nicotine or sugar—to kick in and render their bodies at least tolerably functional until the first break.
Out on the road the commuters set off for bigger towns beyond the forest; their gloves slam against heating vents and their curses are the sort you only think of uttering when you’re drunk, dying, or sitting in a far-too-cold Peugeot far too early in the morning.
* * *
If they keep quiet they can hear it in the distance: Bang-bang-bang. Bang. Bang.
* * *
Maya wakes up and stays in bed, playing her guitar. The walls of her room are covered in a mixture of pencil drawings and tickets she’s saved from concerts she’s been to in cities far from here. Nowhere near as many as she would have liked, but considerably more than her parents actually consented to. She loves everything about her guitar—its weight against her body, the way the wood responds when her fingertips tap it, the strings that cut hard against her skin. The simple notes, the gentle riffs—it’s all a wonderful game to her. She’s fifteen years old and has already fallen in love many times, but her guitar will always be her first love. It’s helped her to put up with living in this town, to deal with being the daughter of the general manager of an ice hockey team in the forest.
She hates hockey but understands her father’s love for it; the sport is just a different instrument from hers. Her mom sometimes whispers in her daughter’s ear: “Never trust people who don’t have something in their lives that they love beyond all reason.” Her mom loves a man who loves a place that loves a game. This is a hockey town, and there are plenty of things you can say about those, but at least they’re predictable. You know what to expect if you live here. Day after day after day.
Beartown isn’t close to anything. Even on a map the place looks unnatural. “As if a drunk giant tried to piss his name in the snow,” some might say. “As if nature and man were fighting a tug-of-war for space,” more high-minded souls might suggest. Either way, the town is losing. It has been a very long time since it won at anything. More jobs disappear each year, and with them the people, and the forest devours one or two more abandoned houses each season. Back in the days when there were still things to boast about, the city council erected a sign beside the road at the entrance to the town with the sort of slogan that was popular at the time: “Beartown—Leaves You Wanting More!” The wind and snow took a few years to wipe out the word “More.” Sometimes the entire community feels like a philosophical experiment: If a town falls in the forest but no one hears it, does it matter at all?
To answer that question you need to walk a few hundred yards down toward the lake. The building you see there doesn’t look like much, but it’s an ice rink, built by factory workers four generations ago, men who worked six days a week and needed something to look forward to on the seventh. All the love this town could thaw out was passed down and still seems to end up devoted to the game: ice and boards, red and blue lines, sticks and pucks and every ounce of determination and power in young bodies hurtling at full speed into the corners in the hunt for those pucks. The stands are packed every weekend, year after year, even though the team’s achievements have collapsed in line with the town’s economy. And perhaps that’s why—because everyone hopes that when the team’s fortunes improve again, the rest of the town will get pulled up with it.
Which is why places like this always have to pin their hopes for the future on young people. They’re the only ones who don’t remember that things actually used to be better. That can be a blessing. So they’ve coached their junior team with the same values their forebears used to construct their community: work hard, take the knocks, don’t complain, keep your mouth shut, and show the bastards in the big cities where we’re from. There’s not much worthy of note around here. But anyone who’s been here knows that it’s a hockey town.
Amat will soon turn sixteen. His room is so tiny that if it had been in a larger apartment in a well-to-do neighborhood in a big city, it would barely have registered as a closet. The walls are completely covered with posters of NHL players, with two exceptions. One is a photograph of himself aged seven, wearing gloves that are too big for him and with his helmet halfway down his forehead, the smallest of all the boys on the ice. The other is a sheet of white paper on which his mother has written parts of a prayer. When Amat was born, she lay with him on her chest in a narrow bed in a little hospital on the other side of the planet, no one but them in the whole world. A nurse had whispered the prayer in his mother’s ear back then—it is said to have been written on the wall above Mother Teresa’s bed—and the nurse hoped it would give the solitary woman strength and hope. Almost sixteen years later, the scrap of paper is still hanging on her son’s wall, the words mixed up, but she wrote them down as well as she could remember them:
If you are honest, people may deceive you. Be honest anyway.
If you are kind, people may accuse you of selfishness. Be kind anyway.
All the good you do today will be forgotten by others tomorrow. Do good anyway.
Amat sleeps with his skates by his bed every night. “Must have been one hell of a birth for your poor mother, you being born with those on,” the caretaker at the rink often jokes. He’s offered to let the boy keep them in a locker in the team’s storeroom, but Amat likes carrying them there and back. Wants to keep them close.
Amat has never been as tall as the other players, has never been as muscular as them, has never shot as hard. But no one in the town can catch him. No one on any team he’s encountered so far has been as fast as him. He can’t explain it; he assumes it’s a bit like when people look at a violin and some of them just see a load of wood and screws where others see music. Skates have never felt odd to him. On the contrary, when he sticks his feet in a pair of normal shoes he feels like a sailor stepping ashore.
The final lines his mother wrote on the sheet of paper on his wall read as follows:
What you create, others can destroy. Create anyway. Because in the end, it is between you and God. It was never between you and anyone else anyway.
Immediately below that, written in red crayon in the determined handwriting of a primary school student, it says:
They say Im to little to play. Become good player any way!
Once upon a time, Beartown Ice Hockey’s A-team—one step above the juniors—was second-best in the top division in the country. That was more than two decades and three divisions ago, but tomorrow Beartown will be playing against the best once more. So how important can a junior game be? How much can a town care about the semifinal a bunch of teenagers are playing in a minor-league tournament? Not so much, of course. If it weren’t this particular dot on the map.
A couple of hundred yards south of the road sign lies “the Heights,” a small cluster of expensive houses with views across the lake. The people who live in them own supermarkets, run factories, or commute to better jobs in bigger towns where their colleagues at staff parties wonder, wide-eyed: “Beartown? How can you possibly live that far out in the forest?” They reply something about hunting and fishing, proximity to nature, but these days almost everyone is asking themselves if it is actually possible. Living here any longer. Asking themselves if there’s anything left, apart from property values that seem to fall as rapidly as the temperature.
* * *
Then they wake up to the sound of a bang. And they smile.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Beartown includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
Beartown is a small community on the brink of disappearing into the surrounding forest as the town loses more and more young people and commerce to the larger surrounding towns. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, home of the hockey club that has long been the sole source of entertainment and pride for the townspeople, and the only possible ticket out of town for the young men who grew up playing hockey there.
Now, the seventeen-year-old boys who make up Beartown’s junior ice hockey team carry the immense weight of all the town’s hopes and dreams on their shoulders. The team is about to compete in the national semifinals, and they actually have a shot at winning—a win that could bring a new hockey school, commerce, and prosperity back to Beartown.
The outcome of this semifinal match has the potential to change lives and make dreams come true. But when an act of violence leaves a young girl traumatized the night following the big game, the town is divided—and the people of Beartown must decide what they stand for, what they’ll allow, and what they’re willing to give up on the road to victory.
Topics and Questions for Discussion
1. What does hockey mean to the people of Beartown? What does winning the semifinal mean for the town’s future?
2. The town and the parents of the Beartown junior hockey team place great expectations on the shoulders of seventeen-year-old boys. How does this pressure affect the boys? Have the club’s leaders (David, Sune, Peter, and the others) prepared the boys to deal with this pressure? Have the boys’ parents?
3. How do issues related to social class affect the people of Beartown and the hockey club? Do those who live in the Hollow have a different world view from those who live in the Heights? Does hockey cut through class distinctions or reinforce them?
4. What does Kira’s role as a working mother, and her job as a lawyer, mean to her? How does her job affect the way others treat her? Consider this passage from the novel:
“Not a second has passed since she had children without her feeling like a bad mother. For everything. For not understanding, for being impatient, for not knowing everything, not making better packed lunches, for still wanting more out of life than just being a mother. She hears other women in Beartown sigh behind her back: ‘Yes, but she has a full-time job, you know. Can you imagine?’” (p. 63)
5. How do Peter and Kira complement each other in their relationship? How does he make up for her weaknesses, and vice versa? Do you think they have a solid marriage? A happy one?
6. Peter loves hockey because it demands his all, his everything. What does hockey demand from each of the characters in the book? What does it take from them?
7. There are many different parents and styles of parenting portrayed in the book. Which parents do you think are the most successful at preparing their children for the real world? Why?
8. Consider this sentiment echoed throughout the book: “What is a community? It is the sum total of our choices.” (p. 312) By this definition, how do the townspeople of Beartown ultimately measure up? What kind of community have they built?
9. Several characters must find the courage to go against the grain of the tight-knit Beartown community. What is at stake for each character who does so, and is it worth it for them in the end?
10. Discuss the difference between male and female roles in the small village of Beartown. What is expected of the girls and women vs. the boys and men? Which characters break these expectations, and what are the consequences of doing so?
11. Consider the importance of names and nicknames throughout the novel. How does the lack of first names for “Kevin’s mother,” “Kevin’s father,” “David’s girlfriend,” and Benji’s “bass player” change your impression of them? What effect does calling Maya “the young woman” have on Maya and her own narrative? How does she start to reclaim her own story?
12. In the course of the novel, we see that playing on a sports team teaches young people values like loyalty, responsibility, and commitment. But we also see instances of exclusion, aggression, and entitlement. Are their certain behaviors that are rewarded in a sports competition but considered inappropriate in daily life? Give examples. Which characters in the book have difficulty navigating this?
13. The events of the novel force the junior boys to grow up quickly as they are faced with very adult realities. What kind of man does Amat become over the course of the book? What do his actions reveal about him? What kind of man does Bobo become? Kevin? Benji?
14. Maya is surprised by how easily she can start to lie to her best friend, Ana, and keep secrets from her. How do each character’s secrets affect his or her relationship with loved ones? Consider the secrets between friends (Maya and Ana, Kevin and Benji, Amat and Zach), as well as those between parents and children, and husbands and wives.
15. How does Maya’s final act shape her future? How does it shape Kevin’s? Do you think a form of justice is achieved? Why or why not?
16. Why do you think Benji chooses to stay in Beartown and play for Sune’s A-Team instead of following the others to Hed? Was his choice affected by his relationship with the bass player?
17. At the end of the novel, do you think the tradition of the Beartown Hockey Club continues? Has its fundamental character changed? How do you think it will change going forward?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Who would you cast in the movie of Beartown?
2. If you haven’t read Fredrik Backman’s other novels before, go back and read A Man Called Ove, My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She's Sorry, or Britt-Marie Was Here, as well as the novella And Every Morning the Way Home Gets Longer and Longer, and compare the main themes to that of Beartown. Are there any universal themes you notice in all of Backman’s books?
3. Watch the classic hockey movie Miracle (2004), which tells the story of the 1980 “Miracle on Ice” USA Olympic hockey team, with your book club. How does Coach Herb Brooks’s coaching style compare to that of Sune and David in Beartown?
4. Follow author Fredrik Backman on Facebook (https://www.facebook.com/Backmanland/) and Twitter (https://twitter.com/Backmanland) for news about upcoming books, events, and more.