Thursday, August 01, 2019

Us Against You - Fredrik Backman

Us Against You is Fredrik Backman’s sequel to Bear Town, a book about a remote Swedish town’s utter devotion to its local hockey teams (Junior and Senior). As I pointed out in my review of Bear Town both of these two books are very fragile, in the sense that even one or two key spoilers will tremendously lessen their emotional impact. For that reason, I’m going to be particularly careful not to spoil them for future readers. 

Essentially, Us Against You picks up from where Bear Town leaves off. Bear Town and the neighboring town of Hed are at each other’s throats, mainly because Hed is in the process of stealing all of Bear Town’s best young players, but the animosity and jealousy between the two towns runs much deeper than that.  Bear Town’s junior hockey team has imploded because its star player, a boy everyone believes to be destined for stardom in the NHL, has committed a crime that cannot be ignored – the kind of crime that too many young athletes blessed with superior physical ability expect to get away with because they are so important to their team. Now, opinion in Bear Town is split, and it’s not anything close to an even split. Most of the townspeople want so badly to believe the boy’s denials they pretend that they do even if they don’t. They prefer to blame the victim if, they say, there even wasa victim. And those who dare openly to express a feeling that the player is guilty will learn the hard way that there is a price to be paid in Bear Town for not being a “team player.” 

So, this is not just a war between Hed and Bear Town. Bear Town is suffering its own civil war at the same time.

Fredrik Backman
There are lots of characters in Us Against You, some of them more essential to the main plot than others – but they are all there for a reason. Backman tells the Bear Town story in episodic fashion; short, alternating glimpses of what certain characters are doing separately and together at any given moment. Some of the episodes overlap in real time and others serve to bring the action forward chronologically. The effect of seeing these characters so many times and in so many different settings is that they soon distinguish themselves from one another so clearly that even the minor characters take on lives of their own. 

Us Against You is most definitely a coming-of-age novel, and it’s a good one. But that’s not all it is. Backman explores the meaning of team sport to its fans and asks the eternal question of whether a sport like hockey is just a game to amuse its fans or if it is something more than that. Obviously, to the people of Bear Town and Hed, it’s much, much more than a game; it’s their source of town pride and - be it a good thing or a bad thing – team pride is what distinguishes the citizens of one town from the other. But when team pride becomes this tribal, bad things are going to happen. 

Bottom Line: Us Against You is one of those rare sports books filled with memorable characters ranging all the way from a twelve-year-old boy who will do whatever it takes to avenge his sixteen-year-old sister, to a female hockey coach with zero social skills, to an old woman who has been running one of the town’s few watering holes her entire life, to a hockey coach who believes he would die if he had to leave the game, to a four-year-old girl who is so hockey crazy that she runs away from pre-school in order to practice her shot, to three sisters who had to take over the role of father to their little brother, and on and on. These are just a few of the characters in this story, and I feel like I personally know every single one of them. 

Bear Town and Us Against You are two of my favorite books of 2019. They fit so seamlessly together that they remind me of binge-watching two seasons of a favorite Netflix season. Us Against You is not just for hockey fans (I’m certainly not one), and it is not entirely necessary to read Bear Town before reading Us Against You, although I would recommend that you do so. Bear Town left me angry; Us Against You left me with tears in my eyes.

Book Number 3,423

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