In Beartown, the youth hockey team’s success revives a sense of community cohesion and loyalty for the first time in decades. However, this cohesion is shattered after Kevin Erdahl assaults Maya Andersson, leading people to quickly turn against one another—and most of them turn against Maya, blaming her instead of her attacker. By showing how this division plays out both in town politics and within individual relationships, Backman argues that loyalty can be a dangerous thing, and that it often has a damaging effect on those who cannot conform to group norms.
Beartown’s hockey culture requires total loyalty, as well as rejection of anyone who does not conform. After Kevin’s assault of Maya takes place, the town quickly splinters into divided loyalties. “The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard. It makes demands. Hate is simple. So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that’s easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. […] [W]e dehumanize our enemy.” In other words, hate is a simplistic, reductive form of belonging that depends on a neat division between people, and on ostracizing those who won’t or can’t belong. Maya ends up being dehumanized and scapegoated by most of the Beartown community, because believing her story would require them to question the norms of the town’s hockey culture—which would shatter the basis for town unity.
Ultimately, Peter Andersson, Maya’s father and General Manager of the hockey club, sees through the problems created by the town’s idolization of hockey and must confront that hypocrisy in himself, too. When his wife, Kira, reminds him of a time when he rejected police intervention in a violent incident, he thinks: “[He] didn’t want to say what he really felt: that he didn’t think what had happened in the players’ tunnel should have been reported to the police either. Not because he liked violence, and not because he was in any way trying to defend what the player had done, but because he wanted hockey to solve hockey’s problems. Inside the bubble. […] Now he’s no longer sure he can even convince himself [of that position]. And he doesn’t know what that says about him.” In the aftermath of the assault committed against his daughter, Peter has to come to terms with his role in supporting the culture that allows such things—a “bubble” that tries to solve its own problems. Insiders aren’t held accountable, and any victims outside the bubble—like his own daughter—are subject to the wrath of those inside.
The demands of Beartown culture are enacted on the level of individual friendships, too. When Amat’s old friend Zacharias is bullied and Amat’s new hockey teammate, Bobo, intervenes, it leads to a crisis in Amat and Zacharias’s friendship: “‘Everyone on the team always sits at the same table. Come and find us,’ Bobo interrupts, then disappears. […] When [Amat] turns around Zacharias has already taken his jacket and bag from his locker and is heading for the exit. ‘What the hell, Zach? Wait! Come on, he HELPED you!’ Zacharias stops but doesn’t turn around. He refuses to let Amat see his tears when he says: ‘No, he helped you. So run along, big shot. Your new team is waiting for you.’” As an elite hockey player, Amat has reached a new tier of social belonging that’s unattainable to Zacharias, creating an unbridgeable chasm between them. In other words, Amat learns that in Beartown, loyalties can’t be divided; he can’t be both an elite hockey player and Zacharias’s friend.
Later, after Amat sees Kevin assaulting Maya, Amat is included in the team’s bonding: “Amat doesn’t understand why [they’ve stopped] until Kevin opens the trunk of the car. They’ve got beer, lights, skates, and hockey sticks in the back. […] They play hockey on the lake that night, four boys, and everything feels simple. As if they were children. Amat is amazed at how straightforward it is. Staying silent in return for being allowed to join in.” Now, Amat is not only feeling pulled between different social worlds; he’s feeling pressured to transfer his exclusive loyalty to his new team. However, it’s more sinister than that; the price of inclusion is not just simple, childlike loyalty, but also complicity in upholding Kevin’s untouchable status in Beartown.
Backman does show positive expressions of loyalty, too. Amat and Zacharias’s friendship is restored by the end of the book; despite a brief estrangement, Maya and her best friend, Ana, are a shining example of lifelong loyalty; and other friends and family members faithfully support Maya, too. These relationships stand out all the more strongly, however, because of the stories of how loyalty can go horribly wrong.
Loyalty and Belonging ThemeTracker
Loyalty and Belonging 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.
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.
The storm of laughter from all the juniors makes the room shake. In the end even David smiles, and he’ll think back to that moment many times afterward: whether a joke is always only a joke, whether that particular one went too far, whether there are different rules inside and outside a locker room, whether it’s acceptable to cross the line in order to defuse tension and get rid of nerves before a game, or if he should have stopped Lars and intervened by saying something to the guys. But he does nothing. Just lets them all laugh. He’ll think about that when he gets home and looks his girlfriend in the eye.
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?”
Even in Hed people recognize them, and they get slaps on the back and congratulations. After the movie, when Amat thinks they’re on the way home, Lyt turns off the main road just after the Beartown sign. He stops by the lake. Amat doesn’t understand why until Kevin opens the trunk of the car. They’ve got beer, lights, skates, and hockey sticks in the back. They put their woollen hats down to mark the goals.
They play hockey on the lake that night, four boys, and everything feels simple. As if they were children. Amat is amazed at how straightforward it is. Staying silent in return for being allowed to join in.
Hate can be a deeply stimulating emotion. The world becomes much easier to understand and much less terrifying if you divide everything and everyone into friends and enemies, we and they, good and evil. The easiest way to unite a group isn’t through love, because love is hard. It makes demands. Hate is simple.
So the first thing that happens in a conflict is that we choose a side, because that’s easier than trying to hold two thoughts in our heads at the same time. The second thing that happens is that we seek out facts that confirm what we want to believe— comforting facts, ones that permit life to go on as normal. The third is that we dehumanize our enemy. There are many ways of doing that, but none is easier than taking her name away from her.
She will always be this to them now: at best the girl who got raped, at worst the girl who lied. They will never let her be anyone but that. In every room, on every street, in the supermarket and at the rink, she will walk in like an explosive device. They will be scared to touch her, even the ones who believe her, because they don’t want to risk getting hit by shrapnel when she detonates. They will back away in silence, turn in a different direction. They will wish that she would just disappear, that she had never been here. Not because they hate her, because they don’t, not all of them: they don’t all scrawl BITCH on her locker, they don’t all rape her, they aren’t all evil. But they’re all silent. Because that’s easier.
Ana feels like pushing her neighbor up against the wall and telling him that the locker room where those boys sit telling their stupid jokes ends up preserving them like a tin can. It makes them mature more slowly, while some even go rotten inside. And they don’t have any female friends, and there are no women’s teams here, so they learn that hockey only belongs to them, and their coaches teach them that girls are a “distraction.” So they learn that girls only exist for fucking. She wants to point out how all the old men in this town praise them for “fighting” and “not backing down,” but not one single person tells them that when a girl says no, it means NO. And the problem with this town is not only that a boy raped a girl, but that everyone is pretending that he DIDN’T do it. So now all the other boys will think that what he did was okay.
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.