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In 'Beartown Trilogy,' author Fredrik Backman uses hockey to explore the human condition

The cover of "The Winners" by Fredrik Backman.
The cover of "The Winners" by Fredrik Backman.

In his best-selling book “The Winners,” Swedish author Fredrik Backman concludes his “Beartown Trilogy,” which centers around a hockey-loving town in Sweden.

Producer Emiko Tamagawa has this introduction to the author and the books.

Author Fredrik Backman. (Courtesy of Linnéa Jonasson Bernholm & Appendix fotografi)

Book excerpt: ‘The Winners’

By Fredrik Backman

Everyone who knew Benjamin Ovich, particularly those of us who knew

him well enough to call him Benji, probably knew deep down that he was never the sort of person who would get a happy ending.

Obviously we still hoped. Dear God, how we hoped. Naive dreams are love’s last line of defense, so somehow we always convince ourselves that no terrible tragedies will ever afflict those we love, and that our people will succeed in escaping fate. For their sakes we dream of eternal life, we wish for superpowers and try to build time machines. We hope. Dear God, how we hope.

But the truth is that stories about boys like Benji hardly ever end with them as old men. They don’t get long stories, and they don’t die peace- fully in old people’s homes with their heads resting on soft pillows.

Boys like Benji die young. They die violently. “Keep it simple.” That’s a common piece of advice in hockey, as it is in

life. Never make things more complicated than they need to be, don’t think too much, and ideally not at all. Perhaps that ought to apply to stories like this as well, because it shouldn’t take long to tell, it starts right here and ends in less than two weeks, and how much can happen in two hockey towns during that time? Not much, obviously.

Only everything.

The problem with both hockey and life is that simple moments are rare. All the others are a struggle. This story doesn’t start today, it’s been going on for two years, because that was when Maya Andersson moved away from here. She left Björnstad and traveled through Hed on her way south. The two forest communities lie so close to each other and so far from everywhere else that it felt like emigrating. One day Maya will sing that the people who grow up this close to wilderness maybe find it easier to access the wilderness within them, that will probably be both an exag- geration and an understatement, almost everything that’s said about us is. But if you take a trip here and get lost and find yourself in the Bearskin pub, and don’t get slapped for being stupid enough to ask how old she is, or asking for a slice of lemon in your drink, maybe Ramona behind the bar will tell you something important: “Here in the forest people are more dependent on each other than in the big cities. People are stuck to- gether here, whether we like it or not, so stuck together that if one bugger rolls over too quickly in his sleep, some other bugger loses his shirt on the other side of the district.”

You want to understand this place? Then you need to understand its connections, the way everything and everyone is tied to everything and who was left could talk less and less about “the scandal” until it was almost like it had never happened.

Benji Ovich, who was once best friends with Kevin, also packed his bag. It was much smaller than Maya’s—she left to go somewhere whereas he just left. She sought answers in the light and he in the darkness, she in art and he at the bottom of bottles. Neither of them probably really succeeded.

In the place they left behind, Beartown Hockey was on the brink of collapse. In a town that had always dreamed impossible dreams, hardly anyone dared to dream at all anymore. Peter Andersson, Maya’s dad, resigned as general manager and gave up hockey altogether. The spon- sors fled and the council even discussed shutting down the entire club and letting Hed Hockey take over all the resources and grants. In fact it was only at the very last minute that Beartown was saved by new money and stubborn local businessmen. The factory’s new owners saw the club as a way of being accepted by the local community, and an optimistic politician named Richard Theo saw an opportunity to win votes, and between them just enough capital was conjured up in time to prevent the club’s demise. At the same time the old committee members were replaced, meetings about the club’s “brand” took place, and soon they were able to proudly present an entirely new “values system.” Brochures were sent out with the wheedling message: “It isn’t just easy to sponsor Beartown Hockey, it’s also the right thing to do!” And against all odds things did actually turn around, first on the ice, then outside the rink. Beartown’s coach, Elisabeth Zackell, applied for a job with a larger club but didn’t get it—the job went to Hed’s coach instead, so he left the forest and took several of Hed’s best players with him. Suddenly Hed was without a coach, and was soon digging in the same trench of plots and power struggles that all clubs in that situation seem to end up in. In the meantime Zackell put together a new team in Beartown, appointed a young man named Bobo assistant coach and gathered a ragtag band of players with a sixteen-year-old called Amat at their head. Amat is now eighteen and easily the biggest star in the whole district, such a serious talent that there were rumors last winter that he was going to be drafted to the NHL and turn professional in North America. He dominated every game throughout the whole of last season until he got injured in the spring, and if that hadn’t happened the whole town was convinced that Beartown would have won the league and been promoted to a higher division. And if Hed hadn’t managed to gain a few miraculous points from their final matches they would have come in at the bottom and been relegated to a lower division.

So everything that seemed so utterly improbable when Maya and Benji left now feels, two years later, like merely a question of time: the green town is on the way up and the red town is on the way down. Every month Beartown seems to gain new sponsors and Hed has fewer, Beartown’s rink has been renovated while the roof of Hed’s is close to collapse. The biggest employers in Beartown, the factory and the supermarket, are ad- vertising for staff again. The largest employer in Hed, the hospital, has to make cutbacks every year. Now it’s Beartown that has the money, this is where the jobs are, we’re the winners.

From “The Winners” © 2022 by Fredrik Backman. Reprinted by permission of Simon and Schuster.

This article was originally published on WBUR.org.

Copyright 2022 NPR. To see more, visit https://www.npr.org.