In new novel, 'Ove' author takes on hockey-town culture

Swedish author Fredrik Backman’s new novel is 'Beartown.'
Swedish author Fredrik Backman
Linnea Jonasson Bernholm & Appendix Fotografi

Scandals involving sports teams seem to happen with depressing regularity. Yet they always shock us, and maybe leave us feeling a little guilty about our community.

In his new novel, "Beartown," best-selling author Fredrik Backman explores why. While Backman sets his hockey story in a small town in his Swedish homeland, it will seem very familiar to Minnesotans.

Backman said he wanted to write "Beartown" for a specific reason.

"I have what I feel is a healthy interest in sports," he said, "and what everyone else seems to think is a problem, psychologically, because I get obsessed with things."

He plays sports. He follows sports. He says he fell in love with sports and books at the same time, and that both provided an escape from reality. As a self-described sports insider, he wanted to write about the good parts, including how sport builds community.

Swedish author Fredrik Backman’s novel 'Beartown'
Swedish author Fredrik Backman's novel "Beartown" is set in his homeland, but tells a tale of a small town's obsession with its local sports team which people from all over the world will recognize.
Courtesy Simon and Schuster

"You know: loyalty, and being part of a team and everything," he said. "But also, I wanted to talk about the darker sides and the hypocrisy that sports can sometimes be, and the things that we let successful people get away with, just because they are important to us."

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Backman is no stranger to difficult subjects. He wrote the international best-seller "A Man Called Ove." It's a dark comedy about a curmudgeon whose desire to kill himself is superseded only by his obsession with maintaining the rules in his subdivision. "Beartown" is set in a small forest community in northern Sweden. It's seen better times.

"Back in the days when there will still things to boast about, the city council erected a sign beside the road at the entrance to the town with the sort of slogan that was popular at the time: 'Beartown — Leaves you wanting more!' The wind and the snow took a few years to wipe out the word 'More.' Sometimes the entire community felt like a philosophical experiment: If a town falls in the forest but no one hears it, does it matter at all?"

Beartown is struggling, losing jobs and people. The one bright hope is the local hockey club, the Beartown Bears. The junior team has just made it to the semi-finals of the national championship. The players are already local heroes. They are obnoxious. They can be violent bullies, and their attitudes to women leave a lot to be desired. But the town loves them because they are winners. Through them, Beartown could become something again.

Then, Backman says, everything changes when someone assaults a girl at a party: "A crime committed by a very successful and important hockey player."

It's an ugly situation, and things quickly turn even uglier when the community sides with the player and impugns the victim. Almost everyone is complicit in some way. Backman said he's spent a lot of time in locker rooms, and for "Beartown" he drew on what he had seen and heard.

"That's the hardest thing I have ever written because ... so much of the worst qualities of people came from me," he said.

The book sold well in Sweden, and Backman said few people have denied they recognize the truths in the novel. While this is a hockey story, Backman said, it's really about community.

"There is a line in the book which was the most important one to me," he said. "This recurring question: What is a community? It is the sum of our choices. That is the whole point of the book to me."

Backman will discuss the book at 7 tonight at Grace-Trinity Church in Minneapolis. Tickets, which include a copy of the book, must be bought online in advance.

Backman said originally he didn't think there would be interest in the book outside Sweden, which is hockey-mad.

"But it did travel, because it seemed to be that the story and the story about community and the story about the people ... that was something that people understood, no matter where they were," he said. "And that feels fantastic, to be honest."

And now he's bringing it to Minnesota, with its own hockey-obsessed towns.