It’s a Friday in early March. Everyone in Beartown, Sweden, anticipates tomorrow’s hockey game—the junior team is playing in the semifinal of a national youth tournament. In most places, something like that wouldn’t be so important, but Beartown is different.
The story rewinds to several weeks earlier. Youth hockey is a big deal in this small town; it’s embedded in the culture of the place. From the beginning, Beartown is like a character in itself, and its relationship with hockey is established here as a key to the conflict in the novel.
The town wakes early; it’s cold and snowing. Lines of tired people wait to clock in at the factory; commuters head for bigger towns beyond the forest. In the distance, everyone in town can hear a “bang-bang-bang.”
There’s immediately a sense that Beartown’s economy is somewhat depressed, only able to sustain limited jobs. The mysterious, recurrent “bang” in the background becomes like a soundtrack for town life, though its source is kept hidden for now.
When 15-year-old Maya wakes up, she stays in bed, playing her guitar. Her guitar is her first love and what helps her put up with Beartown life. Her father, Peter, is the general manager of the town’s hockey team, and although Maya hates hockey, she understands her father’s passion, seeing hockey as “just a different instrument from hers.” She figures that life in a hockey town is predictable, at least.
Maya is immediately presented as someone who resists being assimilated into the town culture, though she sympathizes with her father’s passion. Her apparent dislike of hockey, along with her status as the GM’s daughter, suggests a conflict between Maya and hockey culture that will persist throughout the book. The idea that life is “predictable” also creates an expectation that the town’s sleepy predictability will be shockingly overturned.
Beartown is losing—jobs, houses, population, and even the hockey team. Four generations ago, factory workers built a hockey rink here. Even now, the stands are packed each weekend, as “everyone hopes that when the team’s fortunes improve once again, the rest of the town will get pulled up with it.”
Hockey is an enduring part of Beartown’s heritage—so much so that it’s become identified with the town’s success or failure. This identification filters down into personal relationships, not just institutions, and helps explain the conflicts that occur later in the novel.
Accordingly, the town places its hope in its young people. The junior hockey team is coached with the same values upon which the town was built: “work hard, take the knocks, don’t complain […] and show the bastards in the big cities where we’re from.”
Ironically, the town’s investment in its young people—its hope for the future—is expressed in terms of the town’s founding values. The novel will explore whether some of these values are outdated, or at least whether they’ve become unbalanced aspects of the town culture, with distorting effects on the town as a whole.
Amat is almost 16. His tiny bedroom is covered with posters of NHL players, with the exception of a photo of himself playing hockey at age seven, and a handwritten prayer that a nurse had whispered to Amat’s mother, Fatima, after his birth. It’s said to be a prayer cherished by Mother Teresa, and one of its lines reads, “All the good you do today will be forgotten by others tomorrow. Do good anyway.” Amat is not as tall or as strong as the town’s other hockey players, but nobody moves as fast as he does. Hockey skates feel natural to him.
Amat isn’t the typical Swedish hockey teen, in a number of ways—he wasn’t born in a traditional hockey-playing culture, he lacks the economic privileges of some of his teammates, and he’s small. And unlike some of the other players, his biggest off-ice influence is his single mother. The values Fatima teaches Amat—summed up in the Mother Teresa prayer—will contrast with the winning obsession that characterizes some of his teammates, and these values prepare Amat to resist that obsession in important ways.
More than 20 years ago, Beartown’s A-team (a step above the junior team) was second-best in the country, which explains why the juniors’ impending semi-final is so important to the town. Beartown is dominated by a neighborhood of expensive lakeview houses, mostly the homes of business owners or those who commute to bigger towns. People in those other towns don’t understand how anyone could survive in a small forest community like Beartown. Many Beartown residents are wondering the same thing. But when they wake up to the sound of a “bang,” they smile.
Beartown has a history of excellence that it’s never been able to match in the years since its last championship trophy. Because of the town’s decline since then, the approaching final has been invested with much more significance. Most residents themselves lack much faith in their town.