Beartown by Fredrik Backman. 2018. Washington Square Press.
People say Beartown is finished. A tiny community nestled deep in the forest, it is slowly losing ground to the ever-encroaching trees. But down by the lake stands an old ice rink, built generations ago by the working men who founded this town. And in that ice rink is the reason people in Beartown believe tomorrow will be better than today. Their junior ice hockey team is 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.
Being responsible for the hopes of an entire town is a heavy burden, and the semi-final match is 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, leaving no resident unaffected.
Beartown explores the hopes that bring a small community together, the secrets that tear it apart, and the courage it takes for an individual to go against the grain. In this story of a small forest town, Fredrik Backman has found the entire world.
Why Beartown Matters
Too often we try to keep difficult subjects away from our students because we don’t believe they’re ready to handle tough topics. While we may have the best intentions in that decision, teens are still going to talk about and, unfortunately, experience many of the hardships we want to protect them from. At its best, the English classroom can be a way to access difficult topics and discuss them in a setting that is safe, brave, and cathartic. Beartown would make an exceptional classroom read for just this reason. Backman writes about the traumatic rape of a teen girl with a writing style that is both responsible and nuanced. While he condemns that rape in no uncertain terms, the complexity of the situation allows for discussions our teenagers need to be having: What social constructs lead this boy to believe he was entitled to commit such a violent act? What does it feel like to be assaulted by someone you liked and were attracted to? What is the responsibility of a community to its young people? At what point are the bonds of friendship and loyalty irrevocably broken?
And sexual assault isn’t the only difficult topic Backman addresses. The tension in the novel between the belonging that comes from being part of a team and the othering teens experience on class, race, and sexual orientation is phenomenally well-crafted. Backman clearly understands the urgency teenagers experience to feel a sense of safety and belonging. While adult readers may question why these young people remain close to the people who denigrate them, this type of friendship will likely ring true for younger readers. And with that in mind, I firmly believe that teenagers ought to read more books about teenagers. Every time I’ve taught a book with a teen protagonist, my students’ engagement in class and willingness to actually read the book goes way up. What’s wonderful about Beartown is that it’s (largely) a book about teenagers that offers deep, complicated themes and a window into underrepresented perspectives.
Themes and Social Issues: sexual assault, loyalty, friendship and family, community, pressure and expectations, immigration, depression and anxiety, sports, reputation.
Literary Features: The novel makes great use of imagery to describe everything from the feeling of freedom that comes with ice skating as fast as possible to the supportive yet oppressive atmosphere of the small town. Backman also tells the story through alternating points-of-view (third person omniscient) and flashbacks. His method of characterization is worthy of close analysis and would prompt fantastic discussions.
Pairs Well With: The Scarlet Letter, (Honestly, I would LOVE to teach this pairing because there are so many overlapping elements in such different stories.) The Lords of Discipline
Content to Consider: Beartown is a book about a rape and that assault is described in an appropriately horrifying manner without being graphic or gratuitous. Additionally, the hockey players in the book make quite a few dismissive and derogatory jokes about homosexuality without initial comment from the author. As the book continues and Backman reveals that one of the teammates is gay, Backman clearly challenges and condemns the boys method of “bonding” through offensive language and dismissal of difference.
Grade Level Recommendation: 10th and up