Beartown is a small, isolated town obsessed with ice hockey. They finally have a junior team they believe will put them back on the map and encourage investment but then it all goes wrong. Their star player, Kevin, rapes the general manager’s daughter and the town’s residents are forced to confront their prejudices and question who they believe.
Backman deals with the issue masterfully. The attack itself is described but not in excessive, gratuitous detail. Instead we are told the odd little details Maya will remember later. Initially reluctant to report the crime to the police, knowing full well that the town will instantly take Kevin’s side, her sense of duty to protect others outweighs her own desire to pretend it never happened. Before the rest of the town find out what has happened the police make it clear that their default is to blame the victim, telling her what she should have done differently and giving her a greater degree of agency than Kevin, despite him being the older of the two. The reactions of the residents when it comes out are just as Maya expected – unforgivably violent and extreme. She proves herself strong while others cave under the desire to fit in, ignoring her suffering for the sake of themselves and the team. ‘Winners have a tendency to be forgiven here.’ The issues raised in this novel feel very relevant – victim blaming is rife in reporting on sexual assaults and the perpetrator’s prestige used as a vehicle for softer sentencing.
Backman builds up the hockey culture in the town so that we see how such behaviour is accepted and possibly even inevitable. We are told numerous times that when pumped up the players would kill if their coach ordered it. They are disruptive and disrespectful at school – a symptom of the mindset drilled into them for the sport that nobody teaches them how to switch off when they’re not on the ice. The adulation laid on them for their victories is addictive and they will do anything to feel it again.
There’s also a sense that the town doesn’t foster respect for women and that there’s a culture of silence and shame for them. There is no female hockey team despite a number of characters being talented players. Women and girls are not expected to take an interest in the game itself as much as the players, although when they do they are seen as sluts. Kira, Maya’s mother and a successful lawyer, is judged for going out to work full time, her husband mocked for her strength and earning power.
The role of parents is also an interesting aspect in the book. Kevin’s mother has always covered for her son, making it so he is never held accountable for his actions. His father threatens those who could reveal the truth and attempts to bribe them. Maya’s parents don’t communicate well with each other and don’t question Maya when they can sense something is wrong – they are too concerned about being uncool and overly involved. There’s also some parents that make huge sacrifices to support their children and ultimately they make the right decision.
An excellent read that deals with a difficult issue sensitively and intelligently. Don’t be put off by the hockey framing, it is much more about the morals of the characters and how opinion and behaviour is formed.