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"Beartown" by Fredrik Backman


I’m about to be overly effusive: I loved Beartown by Fredrik Backman and I think it is one of the best books I’ve ever read. (See Tangent 1.)
I even love the cover.

Backman lured us into his Swedish world of curmudgeons and the neighbors who love them with A Man Called Ove and his other novellas. But this isn’t A Man Called Ove. This book has a much larger scope. This feels like the book Backman has always wanted to write but had to wait to give to us until he developed an audience. You got it, bro. I will read whatever else you write in the future. This book more deeply develops his ideas about communities. It is also about parenthood and all the responsibilities that go along with it. It’s about family and best friends who are like family. It’s about belonging. It’s about sorrow and happiness. And there’s some hockey. (Tangent 2.)

You will hate some of the parents (Kevin’s, William’s). You will love some of the teens (Amat, Maya, Ana, Benji, Bobo, Leo...). Be prepared to feel emotions. The characters – and there are many, some not even named, but only described, yet still vitally important – will keep you reading. But the plot is where the masterpiece lies. This is Shakespeare.

When I lead book discussions for children or adults, I always ask them to think about plot. Depending on the age of the group, I’ll talk about rising and falling action, climaxes, and denouements, in very general terms. (Tangent 3.) I like to ease into the discussion with little kids when we read a book that doesn’t have much of a plot. I always save my questions on plot for the end, so it doesn’t affect their judgment. For instance, with a group of second-graders I asked if there was just too much action in a certain book we read. They all said yes! In every chapter Something Happened and it made the book somewhat less enjoyable. That may be fine, sometimes, for some chapter books, but it’s not going to make great literature.

With older children and adults, I like to mention various plot structures (mystery vs. regular novel vs. drama/Shakespeare). Most of the novels we read have lots of rising action, little blips of climaxes, then a big climax and the denouement. Mystery novels are similar, but often you’ll find it’s all rising action until the mystery is solved (though once upon a time, the climax and the denouement happened more toward the middle and you slogged through explanation after explanation in the rest of the novel). Shakespeare, as you may recall from high school English classes, used the triangle: Exposition, rising action, climax!, falling action, denouement. And Backman—love you—does the same thing in this book.

The climax occurs at the middle of the book (give or take a few pages). It’s terrific. (What happens is not terrific; but the structure of the book is.) The end of the novel mirrors the start. The two important hockey games happen right before the climax and right after. There’s probably more that I’ve missed, but that’s OK. Because it’s so well written that all you care about is the story and the characters. The structure of the book is well-done enough to fade into the background, as I think it should.

Two other things I must note: This book is also lyrical. Congrats to the translator Neil Smith because you have done an awesome job preserving Backman’s voice (obviously I haven’t read the book in Swedish, but I’m guessing they wouldn’t have published it in English with just any old translation). And this isn’t a book about hockey in that you have to know how the game is played. Don’t let that put you off. Read it if you love good literature.

Tangents
1.      I try not to write about a book immediately after finishing it because my thoughts aren’t grounded enough yet. So, I may feel less ardent in a day or so. I’ll probably just really like it by Sunday. Cases in point: I’m a Tolkien nerd and sobbed at the end of the Return of the King movie. I walked out of the theater and said, “I’m never seeing another movie.” Seeing the looks on my sons’ faces, I added, “Until the next Harry Potter movie comes out.” When I finished Prairie Fire by E.K. Johnson (a sequel to The Story of Owen), I felt like Johnson tore my heart out and stomped all over it. I tweeted her and said, “My heart is broken and I may never read another book again.” She was pleased. So when I finished Beartown last night, I closed it and said, well, I guess I won’t be reading another book for a few days. This one has to settle. But I feel an obligation to my fellow readers to return the book (there are five holds on this book at my library), which means trying to write something that may need a lot of editing today.
2.       More than one person commenting on this novel has made vague comparisons to Friday Night Lights, but then said the book goes beyond that show. I can’t comment on that, never having seen an episode of the series.
3.       I am in no way, shape or form, an expert on plot. However, I enjoy thinking about it. And in analyzing a book, I keep in mind whether the plot works. When weighing books for the Newbery Medal, the committee is asked to “consider the development of a plot.” This is something we should all do. You’ll find, afterward, that if I book has a good plot you actually liked it better. Trust me.

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