By Isabella Hird
Bear Town by Fredrik Backman explores the complex relationships, gender roles, politics, voices and whispers that go hand in hand with life in a small town. Set in northern Sweden, so far north that many claim there is nothing but trees and ice; the people who live in Bear Town don’t live, but survive. In this small town, hockey is not a pastime, but a religion, and the spirit of the bear, that gives them the strength to face their daily lives, lives within them all. Bear Town is on the brink of collapse, more and more stores are closing, the factory continues to lay off workers, and the community hedges their future on the one thing that remains constant throughout the years—the local hockey team. The community lives, eats, and breathes hockey and in return, the hockey team will win so that money, sponsorships, a new elite hockey school, jobs, and most importantly, pride will be returned to Bear Town.
The book follows a number of characters—at times too many to keep track of—and their complex relationships with one another in the small town. In a place where everyone knows one another and nothing remains secret for long, loneliness is ever-present and the truth is surprisingly hard to find. When the star player of the team, the one destined for fame, is accused of sexual assault on the day of the big, deciding game, the community responds by banding together, not for the better. The fallout that ensues, causes the townspeople to question who has the right to speak when, what it means to be loyal, and they all struggle with good vs. evil, right vs. wrong.
Prior to reading Bear Town, I read many reviews that suggested that this work was unlike the rest of Backman’s books. This is part of what drew me to want to read it. Not because I dislike Backman’s other texts, (rather the contrary, A Man Called Ove is one of my favourite reads) but because the ability to create a work so different in style to another suggests incredible skill. While the writing is still Backman’s, beautiful and thoughtful, with word choices so carefully selected that it is more akin to lyrics or poetry on a page than prose, there is a heaviness that accompanies this book that is not present in his other works. The exploration of complex themes and darker topics impart tones of kinship, melancholy, and hope woven throughout the work.
This text is one that I would definitely recommend to others. If you come from a small town, you will be able to relate to the loneliness that accompanies many of the characters, identify people from your past in the characters, and sympathize with those who struggle to fit in. Much like the people of Bear Town, when you finish the story, you will laugh, you will cry, and in the end you will be left needing to know more.
Banner image courtesy of The Wanderer Online Visual Editor Gracie Safranovich.