Friday, January 26, 2018

LIterary Ruralism (Part XII): Beartown

Beartown is Fredrik Backman's latest offering.  He's the Swedish novelist who hit the big time a few years ago with A Man Called Ove.  His Britt-Marie Was Here was also a best seller.  Beartown is set in a small town in Sweden, though it's a town that's big enough to have boys' and men's hockey teams--and to have a factory.  Here are some excerpts about the place, which is very much a character in the story: 
Beartown isn’t close to anything. Even on a map the place looks unnatural. “As if a drunk giant tried to piss his name in the snow,” some might say. “As if nature and man were fighting a tug-of-war for space,” more high-minded souls might suggest. Either way, the town is losing. It has been a very long time since it won at anything. More jobs disappear each year, and with them the people, and the forest devours one or two more abandoned houses each season. Back in the days when there were 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 snow took a few years to wipe out the word “More.” Sometimes the entire community feels like a philosophical experiment: If a town falls in the forest but no one hears it, does it matter at all?  (pp. 10-11)
And then there's this: 
But we’re a town in the middle of the forest. We’ve got no tourism, no mine, no high-tech industry. We’ve got darkness, cold, and unemployment. If we can make this town excited again, about anything at all, that has to be a good thing. I know you’re not from round here, love, and this isn’t your town, but look around: the jobs are going, the council’s cutting back. The people who live here are tough, we’ve got the bear in us, but we’ve taken blow after blow for a long time now. This town needs to win at something. We need to feel, just once, that we’re best. I know it’s a game. But that’s not all it is. Not always.  (p. 26).
But this is perhaps my favorite excerpt. It regards the relationship between Beartown and the nation's capital, and I like it because it reflects that "chip on the shoulder"/inferiority complex that so many small-ish cities/rural areas and their residents feel:
Naturally, everyone in Beartown hates the capital, and they’ve developed a permanent sense of resentment at the fact that the forest contains all the natural resources but all the money ends up somewhere else. Sometimes it feels as if the people of Beartown love the fact that the climate is so inhospitable, because not everyone can handle it: that reminds them of their own strength and resilience. The first local saying Peter taught Kira was: “Bears shit in the woods, but everyone else shits on Beartown, so forest people have learned to take care of themselves!”  (p. 55)
I'm only about half way through the book, but at this point I can say that the forest is like a character in the novel, albeit a minor one.

Though this story is set in Europe, it could well be in the United States or Canada--and the sport could well be one other than hockey, e.g, football in small-town Texas.  Indeed, I'm reminded of the importance of football to this town in Missouri--how the school's football team gives the town identity and meaning, especially in the wake of economic devastation. 

Other themes in the book are gender and crime. 

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