"Beartown"

Meet John. B. Crane, our newest MO Books reviewer. He is a semi-retired psychiatrist, practicing part-time in Union. He loves reading novels, but not so much non-fiction. Crane says he gets enough of that from psychiatry journals.

Crane said writing for the blog has two major advantages for him: “it's fun to express opinions about a book, good or bad, and not get into an argument; and a lot of free reads will come his way.”

* * * * * * * * * * *

If you’re a hockey fan, this novel is right up your alley – er, rink. If not, you may learn more than you wish about the game, but that shouldn’t put you off reading this book. While hockey is ostensibly its focus, the book’s finely-drawn characters, their interactions with one another, and the complex goings-on in small Beartown (in rural, forested Sweden”) are the real meat of the book.

Peter, born and reared in Beartown, is the general manager of the local hockey club, the Bears, comprised of high school teens, most of whom have been on skates and skating together as soon as they learned to walk.

Peter was a product of the club years ago, and one of the very few whose talents took him to Canada and the pinnacle, the National Hockey League. An injury cut his career short, and he’s back in Beartown now, bringing with him his wife Kira, an attorney in a neighboring city; his 15-year-old daughter Maya; and 12-year-old son Leo.

There are, as always, differences of class in Beartown. Kevin, the Bears’ gifted star, lives in the biggest house with the richest family on the highest hill, which overlooks the town and the lake below. His father is a businessman, quite successful, gone on frequent trips, often taking Kevin’s mother with him. He is interested in only three things in life: his business, the money it brings and Kevin’s statistics.

It seems impossible for him to tell his son, “I love you.” He does, however, ask, “Did you win? By how much? How many goals did you make?” Kevin’s mother, subservient to his father, is unable to do more than watch, or to intervene, even though she can see the effects on their son.

Somewhat improbably, the Bears find themselves winning game after game and in contention for the national title. Kevin is the heart of the team, inseparable on the ice from his best friend Benji, whose interests in life are hockey and marijuana. He is, however, able to anticipate Kevin’s movements during a game, and in usually un-noted ways helps his friend maintain his status as the golden boy of the team.

In the first half of the novel, the citizens of Beartown, from those on the Hill to their less fortunate neighbors in the Hollow, are united in their excitement and pride in the team. The local businessmen, most of whom are sponsors and board members of the club, are seeing stars (and dollars) with their continuing success, and of course share in the general excitement. They can see a hockey academy coming to town, bringing money, viable shops and businesses to replace those drying up.

And suddenly, the ice cracks, then fragments, when Kevin’s pent-up anger explodes during a drunken party at his family’s house during one his parents’ frequent trips. All the team is there, as well as classmates, including girls starry-eyed over the players.

Maya is there, and in her excitement, when Kevin singles her out among the other girls, she joins in the drinking, the first time in her life.

Without revealing too much of the story, Kevin is pulled off the team bus by police as it’s leaving for the championship game, and we see the beginning of the end of Beartown’s camaraderie. The town breaks into factions full of anger and occasional violence, when the team narrowly loses the championship, and when the town finds out why Kevin was arrested, camaraderie quickly turns to vitriolic, destructive hate.

Read this book, whether or not you’re a hockey fan. The game is important to the story, but much more interesting to this reviewer is the author’s keen sense of people and their emotions, strengths and weaknesses, and how they live and love and suffer in “Beartown.”