What is a community? It’s a question many of us have been asking lately, as we see rural America drift into ruin or into suburban sprawl, as the postindustrial town and city fall apart, and as our national conversation becomes increasingly divisive and impenetrable. We’re all fighting silent battles for community: seeking to find one, if we don’t have one, or keep ours alive, if we do.
“Beartown,” by Swedish novelist Fredrik Backman, explores this question of community—what it is, and what holds it together—with thoughtfulness and depth. Backman considers the tribalism that can tear us apart, the rifts that can hold us hostage to the past, and the corruption that can ensnare our future. All this, in a book that—according to most reviewers—is about hockey.
Beartown may be a Swedish town, but its story of rural decline and desperation is one that many Americans will recognize. The town is steadily losing economic activity and youthful talent to its larger counterparts, farther away from the forest. The hockey team’s general manager, Peter, is desperate to bring some promise and hope back to his dying town. It seems that winning a hockey championship could be the best way to achieve that—and the team has just the enterprising young star they need in order to rise to the top.
Kevin is a 17-year-old kid whose love of hockey is unmatched, and whose virtuosic talent is astounding. He and his family have given everything to achieve hockey greatness and, in turn, to make Beartown great again. But after an ill-fated party following Beartown’s semifinal win, everything—not just the championship, but every communal tie and promise that held this town together—is threatened.
Beartown is united by its hockey team, and throughout the book, various people insist on doing what they think is best for that “club.” Not just because they want to win, but because they want the town and everyone in it to win again. But this sort of sentiment, as the book makes clear, can quickly draw us into a tribalism that puts the good of all before the good of the one, the survival of the collective before moral clarity and truth.
Declaring Allegiance to a Town, Or to an Ideological Tribe
Some would argue that this deep adherence to a geographic community is increasingly rare idea in America today. In his book “The Big Sort,” author Bill Bishop argues that we increasingly build allegiances around abstract ideas and individual preferences, not around geographic ties. “It used to be that people were born as part of a community, and had to find their place as individuals,” he notes in an interview with The Atlantic. “Now people are born as individuals, and have to find their community.”
“Community, in this sense, is not merely something that one fits into; it is also something one chooses for oneself, through a process of self-discovery,” Megan Garber writes. “It is based on shared circumstances, certainly, but offers a transcendent kind of togetherness. It is active rather than passive. The LGBTQ community. The Latino community. The intelligence community. The journalism community.”
Beartown’s community suggests the opposite of this—an older vision of collective allegiance, but one that also is focused on choice. “What is a community?” Backman asks at one point in the book, before immediately answering, “It is the sum total of our choices.”
Backman’s definition of communal choice differs from Bishop’s, in that he suggests we curate and create the ethos of our geographic community via our decisions, whereas Bishop suggests that we’re increasingly choosing ideological, spiritual, or political movements apart from any geographic ties. Both sorts of community, however, can fall prey to the same vices of prejudice and tribalism, callousness and corruption. Backman’s Beartown has the same vices we might recognize in some of America’s football towns: it contains a willingness to paint over or ignore the dark underbelly of its sports world, in order to continue garnering wins. The novel asks us which is more important for a community: justice and integrity, or winning?
But inherent in this question, too, is another important question about what’s best for community: do we measure our wins by qualitative or quantitative means? Are we only as good as the trophies in our trophy case, the dollars and cents flooding into our purses—or should the goodness and wholeness of our community be measured by something more?
‘Beartown’ Asks Us To Consider What Makes A Place Great
In some ways, the book reminded me of the classic TV show “Friday Night Lights.” Benji is deeply reminiscent of Tim Riggins, a boy with a troubled past whose virtue often goes unseen because of his more obvious vices. Peter, like Coach Eric Taylor, strives to battle against the implicit assumptions of a town that wants to win before it wants to be good.
There’s a good deal of language in the book—it’s about high school teenagers on a hockey team, and shares a lot of the dirty humor that might accompany their usual locker-room talk and interactions. But the author doesn’t let content overwhelm his message. Backman’s characters are layered, thoughtful, colorful. They aren’t stale or one-dimensional. The plot has several interesting, albeit not entirely surprising, twists and turns.
Reading “Beartown” reminded me of the desire at the heart of most people, in and outside sporting communities. We want to win. We want to rise above the ash heap of history and display some sort of greatness, even if only for a moment.
But Backman reminds us to ask a deeper question, one that goes to the heart of that desire: what does “winning” really mean? It is quantitative, or qualitative—momentary, or something achieved over an entire lifetime?
Whether we declare our allegiance to a town, a sports team, or an ideological group, we’re all tempted to embrace groupthink at the cost of the individual, the vulnerable, the lowly. But true greatness should look different. “Beartown” wins only when its most vulnerable do, too.