First off, let me just warn you: there are no lovable curmudgeons in this book. If you’re looking for another Man Called Ove or My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry, you won’t find it here. However, you will find a moving, sensitive portrayal of a small town obsessed with hockey, and what happens when the town’s idol, a star player named Kevin, is accused of wrongdoing.
When I began reading the book, I thought it might be similar to Mystery, Alaska, the 1999 feel-good movie with Russell Crowe that featured a small-town hockey team going up against the New York Rangers. But I was wrong. Beartown does start out as an ode to hockey, but soon veers into darker territory. Beartown is a small Swedish town on the decline: jobs have disappeared, unemployed men hang around the local bar, and class and race distinctions still remain. The only thing the town has left is its prized hockey program, and its outstanding junior team, which is headed to the semifinals of the national tournament. Excitement reaches a fever pitch when the team wins the semifinal, only to be replaced with anger and disappointment when Kevin is arrested right before the final game.
Like the sport of hockey it describes, this is a book that will hit you right in the gut. It’s not just about hockey. It’s about the love of parents for their children; about racism and sexism; about conformity and community. It’s a social commentary that, although set in Sweden, is relevant for many small blue-collar towns in the States. Backman doesn’t mince words, but he’s not preachy either. Whether or not you’re a hockey fan, this is a wonderful read.