Beartown by Fredrik Backman
Having heard nothing but good about this novel, and having loved Backman's other novel "A Man Called Ove" that I read last year, I have been chomping at the bit for months as I awaited my turn to read it on the library check out list. It wasn't what I expected, and I've held off putting this review together because I wanted to give a little distance between me and the read, to percolate my thoughts, and be able to organize them in a way that wasn't all emotion before I put up a review.
The storyline- Peter is from a small town in northern Sweden called Beartown, where he was the big hockey star in a hockey-obsessed community. He was drafted in to the NHL in Canada, but a pre-season injury sidelined him and his NHL career never recovered, although he did spend years in Canada playing in the lower leagues. There he met his lawyer wife and had three children. They move back to Beartown after the unexpected death of their first child, hoping that Peter can find his way again as he becomes the general manager of Beartown's youth hockey club. Peter grows the club into a great success, and the novel mainly focuses on Peter's star player, Kevin.
Kevin is the hot thing in Beartown hockey, his father one of the wealthiest and most influential men in town. Just before the national finals, though, which Beartown is competing in for the first time since Peter was playing, Kevin holds a party at his parents' house while they are out of town. At the party, Peter's daughter Maya, who has a crush on Kevin, who is older than her, begins flirting with him. They are drinking, and before too long, Kevin invites Maya upstairs. As things escalate upstairs, Maya decides she's not ready to have sex with Kevin, and tells him to stop. Kevin forces her to continue, raping her, and leaving terrible bruises on her neck and wrists. As it is happening, Maya's friend Amat, the youngest kid newly advanced to Kevin's hockey team, comes in the door and witnesses what is happening. Maya runs off when Kevin lets her up and cocoons herself in her room at home, saying nothing to her parents.
A week later, Maya finally reveals to her parents what happened. They immediately call the police, Kevin is arrested, and charges are filed. It is the day of the hockey final, and the town in in uproar, rumors swirling that Peter has created false charges to keep Kevin from playing and surpassing his reputation as Beartown's junior hockey star. The rest of the novel follows the journey through the trial and how Peter and Maya try to find their way in a community where they are hated, where they have not put the hockey team first.
Now, my thoughts. Backman has skillfully presented the lead up to the rape in a rare completely unbiased manner. Disgusting, degrading locker room talk that demeans women and glorifies sex without care given to the sexual partner is laid bare. It is commonplace talk between team members, who are all teenage boys, and even involving the coach sometimes. The boys are told that they are playing like a girl and other such talk that implies that women are weak and they should be stronger than the women. At the halfway point of the novel, I nearly walked away from the book because this talk was so disgusting that I sometimes felt ill trying to read it. I spoke at length with my husband, who was a big athlete and who confirmed that he'd heard such talk in his locker rooms as well. He often gently teases about my feminist streak, but as long as talk like this persists- as long as women are portrayed as conquests whose only value is as a sexual partner, the feminism movement is needed. I feel that we are coming to a place in our society where the feminism movement is at least as much for the men as it is for the women.
As the novel drew to a close, I kept pondering whether Backman is helping or not by portraying this story in such an unbiased fashion. I do believe that those who witness atrocities without taking a stand against them often do more harm than good. Yes, it is good to bring this issue to light, but I felt that Backman let me down by remaining so neutral, by writing and printing the horrible locker room talk, by not taking his character down a path where justice was served. The only answer to this problem is to raise our next generation of young men to feel, treat, and discuss women with respect, and to punish those now and in the future who do not do so. I just don't know how much progress this book makes in that direction, where there was so much potential for it to be a beacon of goodness and hope.