Controversy in Beartown

This blog post is going to be controversial for some. Some will agree, some will not, some are going to look at me and wonder how it is as a woman and mother I could possibly see and understand certain sides of the people in this story and even have a level of sympathy for others. But as with all opinions; it happens. This is the type of book that is going to send you headfirst into a tailspin, break your heart, and make you reflect on your innermost self, because when the moment comes and you are faced with something of this magnitude you will either be the person who stands up or the person who fades into the shadows.

“Everyone has a thousand wishes before a tragedy, but just one afterward.”

At different moments in this book I was the strong/empty girl, the enraged parents, the helpless best friend, the protective yet foolish mother, the neighbors who turned away, and the team that surrounded and concurred. I could see it all. I understood it all. And whether or not I agreed, I could see why the love for a person, a town, and a desperation to survive would push them past the point of humanity and empathy. As each of these characters my heart broke because no matter whose eyes you looked through, they were all shattered.

The best thing about Backman’s writing is his characters. They are thoughtful and multilayered. He takes tremendous care with each of them so that they are real. You see every side of them – – how they see themselves, as well as how their spouse, children, and community see them. There is no side left untouched and it’s brilliant.

The people of Beartown, love them or hate them, are very human and very flawed, and very much like every other town across the world. It may be a small town in Sweden, but because it’s a hockey town and the Midwest is Hockey Nation, I can see it fit perfectly here in Minnesota.

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Beartown is a small community that is on the brink of the recognition that their town needs in order to survive.  At least that is how many of them see it.  So when the junior hockey team has a chance at winning it big and bringing in that sponsorship/money, etc., the pressure on the young men from their family and community becomes insurmountable. Backman brings you deep into the lives of each young man on the team.  You root for them because you know their dreams, and what they’ve done to prepare for this moment. So when tragedy strikes caused by one of their teammates, it’s not only the life of the young woman he destroys, he takes his team with him.  Though only a few of them can see the truth.  The others rally around him and will walk through fire to protect him and their dreams.

Rape.  It is amazing how powerful a four-letter word can be and all the responses it can yield. A young woman tells a community that their star hockey player has raped her….some blame her because, “she did kiss him back”, others claim it’s none of their business and so cower in their homes, others rip the community at its seams looking for justice, and others only choose to believe when a young man finally steps forward to admit what he saw. But most, outside the few who love her unconditionally, just wish she would dealt with it quietly.

There is a quiet moment in the book where Maya stands at her bedroom window watching two young girls playing outside and she knows she has to come forward. She understands with a unique calmness what it will do to her, her family, her friends, and she knows the community will not believe her. But there is a hushed bravery in that moment that had I not been sitting in a crowded coffee shop in Duluth, I probably would have started crying.

“It doesn’t take long to persuade each other to stop seeing a person as a person. And when enough people are quiet for long enough, a handful of voices can give the impression that everyone is screaming.”

The two characters who I lived through most were the moms of both Maya and Kevin. I imagine because I am one, I slipped right into both of their shoes. What would I do if I had a daughter and she was raped…..what would I do if my son ever raped a girl? Both questions make me equally uneasy and devastated to write. Kira is a powerful attorney and now her daughter’s world has just been ripped out from under her. She fights like a bulldog. The way any mother would. But she is also broken and screams into the forest where no one can hear her because she failed to do the one thing all moms have to do, we have to protect. Every time she appeared on the page my heart would break a little more.

Then there was Kevin’s mom – which is how she’s mostly referred to in the book – she is the wife of a powerful man. Both of whom spend more time traveling than with their son.  She has spent most of his life covering up his tracks because she knows the importance of perfection in her husband’s eyes and she wants that for her son. It’s the only way his father knows how to show any sort of love. He is the shark in this story and the only character I had zero sympathy for. But his wife – Kevin’s mom – I could see her side. You don’t want to believe your child is capable of something like this. You don’t want to believe that by covering up his “little” incident you have taught him to live without consequence. She is also shattered and again tries to protect him. But she knows and sees what he has done and it breaks her even further.

“For the perpetrator, rape lasts just a matter of minutes. For the victim, it never stops.”

Towards the close of the book Maya has a moment with Kevin where she turns the tables of power. Maya was the calming voice throughout the entire book. While parents crumbled, best friends were left feeling helpless to protect, and coaches and teammates rallied and made excuses, Maya was firm. She knew what she needed to take back her life as her own and she prepared for it in the same hushed calmness as when she made the decision to come forward about the attack.

The book was amazing and does an incredible job of showing how one moment can change the lives of everyone it touches. I intend to read it again very soon.  But here is why I’ve been in a reading hangover for four days since finishing it.  These questions haunt me – – What would you do to protect your child? How do you stand strong when the whole world tells your daughter she’s a liar and is accused of “asking for it”? How do you stand strong next to your son who takes something from someone that can never be given back or forgiven? What would it take for you to love them through the hardest parts? It’s hard to imagine having to answer these.  I suppose the answer for any mother is that you just do. You just love them. And then in the forest you scream… where no one else can hear you…

Goodreads – Beartown by Fredrik Backman ✰✰✰✰

More books by Fredrik Backman

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