There’s something odd about kids who grow up in the shadow of a dead older sibling—they’re either scared of everything or brave about everything. Maya is one of the latter. Lately, Maya has noticed that Ana has changed. She doesn’t do their complicated secret handshake as loudly in public, for example. She thinks that Ana is trying more and more to smooth herself out and fit in with the crowd.
Maya’s upbringing, in the knowledge of what her parents suffered, has had a tremendous influence on her, making her both fearless and protective of her parents. She has always admired her best friend’s differentness, too, so Ana’s recent attempts to fit in sadden Maya all the more. Cultures tend to value conformity in one way or another, and the pressures to conform are hard to resist, even for someone as unique as Ana.
Kira feels that everything in her life is a compromise. She used to dream of a dramatic job in criminal law, but now most of her working life revolves around contracts, meetings, and emails. She knows she’s overqualified, but this was the only job within commuting distance of Beartown.
Like Maya’s friend Ana, Kira has always resisted compromise, but has nonetheless found that the demands of family life have required her to lower her standards. She’s capable of more, but she must balance her aspirations with Peter’s commitment to Beartown; again, hockey culture affects everyone, even those who don’t personal care about it.
Jeannette, a teacher in the high school, is trying to get the 17-year-old boys in her classroom to quiet down. They don’t seem to notice she’s there. She’s always been told that her students won’t respect her. Her hockey-playing students have always been told “that they’re bears, winners, immortal.” That’s what they have to be in order to win on the ice. The problem, though, is that they’re never taught to reconsider that perspective when they’re in the classroom. It’s easier to blame her for being an ineffective teacher.
Jeannette, too, is expected to conform to Beartown’s expectations—the hockey players are expected to dominate even in the classroom, and it’s her problem if she can’t adjust. Jeannette observes the problem with the “bear” mindset—that it will inevitably overflow into other areas of life, too.
Jeannette tries appealing to Kevin. He calls her “my lovely” in reply, sparking laughter from the other hockey players. Bobo takes the chance to yell, “Just calm down, sweet cheeks!” Before too long, the classroom has descended into a chant of “We are the bears from Beartown,” with the hockey players standing bare-chested on their desks—except for Kevin, who’s calmly staring at his phone.
The misogynistic banter of the hockey club easily permeates life outside the club, and hockey dominates everything else. Even Kevin’s nonchalance signals that, to him, this is just the way life is supposed to be.
Kira gets swept into meeting after meeting, then a series of texts and calls from her family—Leo needs a ride in the afternoon, Maya needs new guitar strings, and Peter will be home late. Then her boss needs Kira for to come to another meeting. Kira doesn’t have time, but she goes anyway—she’s trying to be “the right kind” of employee, even though she doesn’t feel like she can be a good mom at the same time.
Like Jeannette and Ana, Kira is constantly pulled between ideal and reality, and there doesn’t seem to be enough of her to meet everyone’s expectations. She always has to choose between being an ideal employee or an ideal mom, and she seldom feels she’s succeeded at either. Yet she assumes this is her problem, not the problem of the surrounding culture.
Maya met Ana when they were six years old. Maya had snuck out to go skating on the lake without an adult. After dusk fell, she skated onto thin ice and found herself in the water, clinging to the edge of the ice. Soon, Ana was pulling her out of the water—she never understood how it was possible. Ana was “a child of nature who […] didn’t quite understand people,” and Maya was the opposite.
Maya’s and Ana’s friendship started because of a rescue. Each continually rescues the other in years to come, complementing one another as each of them, in her own way, fails to fit in to Beartown’s culture. Their close friendship shows how refusing to conform can actually be a source of strength.
Maya soon came to understand that Ana “was on thin ice in ways all her own.” Ana’s parents were always fighting, and Ana began to spend more nights at the Anderssons’ house than at her own. Maya loves the way Ana is a “jagged, hundred-sided peg” who has always refused to fit into the community’s usual holes. When they were 10 years old, they used to practice shooting with a hunting rifle in the woods. Now Maya watches Ana trying to look “as normal as possible” and feels sad—“we become what we are told we are,” and Ana has always been told that she’s “wrong.”
Like Kira feeling like an inadequate mother, and Jeannette like an inadequate teacher, Ana has always heard the message that she’s the wrong kind of girl for Beartown; her assets are derided as failings. Yet Ana finds acceptance and stability in the Andersson home, partly because no one there feels they’re living up to expectations, either.
Benji is sitting in the headmaster’s office, being told off for being late so often, but he knows there won’t be consequences, because he’s so vital to the team and thus to the school and the town. Then Jeannette comes into the office, enraged, and Benji teases her, calling her “sweet cheeks.” Jeannette raises her arm as if to punch Benji. The headmaster grabs her arm and hustles her into the hallway. Benji knows he should have been the one the headmaster grabbed.
Even Benji, though he’s often more sensitive than his teammates, isn’t immune to the effects of being on the hockey team—he can get away with things nobody else can, and it sometimes leads him to look down on others. This comparatively innocuous moment also hints that the hockey culture has far worse effects on less sensitive boys.