Beartown is set in a hockey-obsessed, rural Swedish town that has seen better days. Fredrik Backman paints a gritty yet sympathetic picture of a community whose self-respect has withered: “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.” The one thing Beartown has left is its junior hockey team, which is poised to win a national championship. But Beartown’s hockey obsession isn’t totally benign; it seems to create as many problems as it solves, especially for those who are already down and out. By portraying Beartown’s struggle on both a community level and an individual level, Backman argues that when a community breaks down, its breakdown weighs heaviest on those with the least power.
Beartown’s self-image and survival depend on the hockey team’s success. If the junior hockey team wins the national championship, “the politicians might decide to spend the money to establish a hockey school here instead of over in Hed […] [which would] attract the biggest sponsors once more […] It would only be important to the town’s economy. To its pride. To its survival. It’s only so important that a seventeen-year-old in a private garden has been standing here since he got frostbite on his cheeks one night ten years ago, firing puck after puck after puck with the weight of an entire community on his shoulders. It means everything. That’s all.” Hockey, in other words, has become a stand-in for community survival—for Beartown’s self-respect in the midst of an economy that has left them behind. Thus, they’re banking everything on youth hockey’s ability to salvage a respectable future for the town.
A subset of angry young fans known as The Pack feels left behind by the rest of the world, too: “There’s a constant threat of violence hidden just beneath the surface of a certain type of person in this town […] Neither hockey nor school nor the economy ever managed to find a way out for these people, and they emanate a silent fury. […] The Pack has scared their opponents away from coming to Beartown, but sadly the same thing applies to sponsors. The twentysomething men at the Bearskin [bar] have become the most conservative people in town: they don’t want a modern Beartown, because they know that a modern Beartown won’t want them.” In other words, The Pack are angry because they feel they’ve been let down by society in one way or another, and their violence is a complicated expression of that—they don’t fit into broader society, but they don’t have a stable place in Beartown anymore, either.
David, the junior team’s coach, reflects on the razor-thin distinction between “good enough” and “not quite good enough”: “A player who’s as good as Kevin is might turn professional. Might earn millions. And the players who are almost as good? They’ll end up in the factory just on the other side of the trees from the rink […] As long as his team carries on winning, he’ll have a job here, but if they lose? How many steps away from the factory is he? What can he do apart from hockey? Nothing.” So, even for gifted players and coaches, there’s a narrow margin between success and failure. Success requires throwing oneself completely into hockey, as David has done; on the other hand, the trade-off is that if one falls short of the dream of playing professional hockey, they have no alternative to fall back on, and they find themselves struggling for survival just like everyone else. This tension only adds to the barely submerged angst that underlies Beartown’s love of hockey.
As The Pack’s fury hints, the town’s struggle weighs most heavily on those who already lack power within the community. Fifteen-year-old Amat is acutely aware of the differences between his immigrant household and the privileged homes of many of the other hockey players: “There’s an obvious difference between the children who live in homes where the money can run out and the ones who don’t […] Amat knows his options are limited, so his plan is simple: from here to the junior team, then the A-team, then professional. […] He just wants to lie in bed one single night without having to count [money].” Like Beartown, Amat sees hockey as a lifeline, but for him, it’s a matter of individual survival, too—and it’s the best hope for a better life for his downtrodden mom.
One day, Amat is approached by the father of Kevin, his team’s star player, with a possible way out of a dead-end job for Amat’s mother, Fatima. The catch is that Amat was the only witness when Kevin sexually assaulted a fellow student, and Kevin’s dad wants to give Amat the message that people in Beartown “take care of” one another—that is, the price of Amat’s family’s advancement is his silence. This exchange jarringly exemplifies the cost of the town’s us vs. them mindset. Beartown’s success rests on Kevin’s and the team’s success, and the weight of this immense pressure largely falls upon those who already have less power—like Kevin’s victim, and Amat as well.
Although Beartown has many dysfunctional aspects, Backman makes the town sympathetic by offering the perspectives of a broad range of characters. Ultimately, as he explores the painful clashes between the characters with power and those who lack it, he suggests that Beartown’s long-term success or failure will depend not just on the hockey team, but also on the town’s ability to listen to and lift up those with less power. In the closing chapters, there are hints that this is beginning to happen—like when a girls’ hockey team takes shape in Beartown for the first time.
Community Breakdown and Inequality ThemeTracker
Community Breakdown and Inequality Quotes in Beartown
All the love this town could thaw out was passed down and still seems to end up devoted to [hockey]: 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. […] 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.
It’s only a game. It only resolves tiny, insignificant things. Such as who gets validation. Who gets listened to. It allocates power and draws boundaries and turns some people into stars and others into spectators. That’s all.
Sune was like Beartown: a firm adherent of the old faith that no tree should grow too tall, naively convinced that hard work was enough. That’s why the club has collapsed at the same rate that unemployment in the town has rocketed. Good workers aren’t enough on their own, someone needs to have big ideas as well. Collectives only work if they’re built around stars.
There are plenty of men in this club who think that everything in hockey “should be the way it’s always been.” Whenever he hears that, David feels like rolling himself up in a carpet and screaming until his vocal cords give out. As if hockey has ever been constant! When it was invented you weren’t even allowed to pass the puck forward, and two generations ago everyone played without a helmet. Hockey is like every other living organism: it has to adapt and evolve, or else it will die.
There’s a constant threat of violence hidden just beneath the surface of a certain type of person in this town that Peter never noticed when he was growing up, but which struck him all the more plainly after he came home from Canada. Neither hockey nor school nor the economy ever managed to find a way out for these people, and they emanate a silent fury. They’re known as “the Pack” now, even if no one ever hears them say that themselves. […] The Pack has scared their opponents away from coming to Beartown, but sadly the same thing applies to sponsors. The twentysomething men at the Bearskin have become the most conservative people in town: they don’t want a modern Beartown, because they know that a modern Beartown won’t want them.
Robbie Holts is standing alone in the street, hating himself. […] It’s a peculiar sort of angst, the one he lives with, knowing that you had the greatest moment in your life at the age of seventeen. While he was growing up everyone kept telling him he was going to turn professional, and he believed them so intensely that when he didn’t make it, he took it to mean that everyone else had let him down, as if somehow it wasn’t his own fault. He wakes up in the mornings with the feeling that someone has stolen a better life from him, an unbearable phantom pain between what he should have been and what he actually became. Bitterness can be corrosive; it can rewrite your memories as if it were scrubbing a crime scene clean, until in the end you only remember what suits you of its causes.
Amat bounces around between the hugs and pats on the back, and hears himself join in a shouted rendition of “WE ARE THE BEARS FROM BEARTOWN!” so loudly that his chest stings, and he hears the others singing louder because he does, because they want to feel that they’re participating in what he represents now.
The rush lifts him up, his endorphins are bubbling, and afterward he will remember thinking: “How can anyone possibly experience this without thinking he’s a god?”
My name is Amat. I saw what Kevin did to Maya. I was drunk, I’m in love with her, and I’m telling you that straight so that you lying bastards don’t have to say it behind my back when I walk out of here. Kevin Erdahl raped Maya Andersson. I’m going to go to the police tomorrow, and they’ll say I’m not a reliable witness. But I’m going to tell you everything now, everything that Kevin did, everything that I saw. And you won’t ever forget it. You know that my eyes work better than anyone else’s in here. Because that’s the first thing you learn on the Beartown Ice Hockey Club, isn’t it? ‘You can’t teach that way of seeing. That’s something you’re born with.’
Inside the house his dad is sitting with a newly opened bottle of whisky in front of him. They didn’t get everything they wanted this evening, but they haven’t lost either. Tomorrow their lawyer will start to prepare all the arguments why a drunk young man who is in love with the young woman is not a credible witness. Then Kevin will start playing for Hed Ice Hockey, taking his team with him, almost all the sponsors, and all their plans for life will be intact. One day very soon everyone around them will simply pretend that this has never happened. Because this family does not lose. Not even when they do.
None of them sees the first skate of the child who’s the last one out. She’s four years old, a scrawny little kid in gloves that are too big for her, with bruises everyone sees but nobody asks about. Her helmet slips down across her eyes, but the look in them is clear enough.
Adri and Sune come after her, ready to hold the girl up, until they realize that there’s no need. The four boys at the center circle will build a new A-team next season, but that doesn’t matter, because in ten years’ time it won’t be their names that make the people of this town stand taller.
And they’ll all lie and say they were here and saw it happen. The first skate of the girl who will become the most talented player this club has ever seen. They’ll all say they knew it even then.