While this is the sequel to Beartown, it could be read without Beartown because Backman offers enough backstory to recap the previous events of characters who are in both books. That said, I do think Beartown is the stronger book, so I probably wouldn’t skip it. I wasn’t sure what direction a sequel would take, and I was pleasantly surprised that, in some ways, the story became more complex as we see the intersection of hockey, politics, and business in a small town. If you want a hockey program, then it needs a sponsor which requires a business on solid financial footing, which means politicians are usually involved making deals/trades/bribes to establish the business to benefit the town and also to benefit themselves. So, basically like real life. Not much can be done without greasing the wheels of other peoples’s needs and careers. But in the end, hockey is still the main star of the story: hockey is the unifying force–and also the dividing force–of two small towns in Sweden close together that both work together and compete: for jobs, hockey players, a hospital, and identity. Like any small towns (here in my town, it’s St. Joe and Lakeshore), they have more similarities than they want to admit, and yet they passionately want to maintain their autonomy. What pulls us in are the characters. Many are in the first book–as minor players–but they blossom in this one as characters with layers and interest. Even the less likable characters cause us to question our judgments as we see them for the many complexities that make up who they are. Bobo, Amat, Benji and Vidar become leaders; Ana, Maya, and Peter become survivors.
What I liked–but also sometimes found annoying–are the many philosophical/universal statements that somewhat interrupt the story. They are interjections meant to make the reader think. For example, describing Benji after his fallout with Kevin: “He’s sitting quietly in the tree now, but inside him everything is chaos. When a child gets a best friend, it’s like a first infatuation; we want to be with them all the time, and if they leave us it’s like an amputation” (39). I love that because it made me ponder my own childhood best friend as well as my own children’s best friends and how these fallouts make them feel. However, these types of interjected human behavior musings are so ubiquitous that they feel less powerful as the story progresses. Still, it’s another good story about hockey, power, reputation, grit, pride, and how all of this leads to growth, whether you’re 16 or 60. Most of all it’s a good story that sweeps me away into the Swedish forest–far far away from my life.