Beartown, by Fredrik Backman

I understand Beartown: Always the afterthought, populated by misfits and hard-working scrappers, looking down the road with envy at Hed, the town next door that always gets the money, the jobs, the attention. Anyone who grew up in Battle Creek, Michigan, just down the road from Kalamazoo, as I did, understands the dynamic. Throw in a rivalry between the towns’ two ice-hockey clubs, populate the story with the kinds of characters that both small towns and ice hockey attract, and you have a surprising, insightful, emotional book that is about so much more than sports.

When we first are introduced to Beartown, the community is on a nervous high, waiting for the town’s junior ice-hockey team to compete in a huge national semifinal game. For once, the team—and by extension, the town—has a real chance to come out a winner, thanks to Kevin, the star player, and the Beartown team that has grown up around him. But things don’t go quite as planned: as the game approaches, the community is split apart by a violent act. The decisions that must be made as a result test the loyalty and ethics of Beartown’s residents.

I loved Fredrik Backman’s A Man Called Ove (see Kristie’s review here) so much that I was afraid that I would be disappointed by this book. Silly me. Backman’s deep understanding of emotions, motivations, and relationships made A Man Called Ove shine in its portrayal of an individual; with Beartown, the author masterfully depicts an entire community, making us feel that we know each member, that we’ve sat with them in the Bearskin pub and listened to their innermost thoughts. We root for them to do the right thing, and care about them even when they don’t. We understand the mistakes they make, even if we sometimes find it hard to forgive them.

Backman’s extraordinarily pleasurable writing is worth spending time with, no matter what the subject, and if I were the sort of person who highlights great sentences in a book, Beartown’s pages would have been glowing like a radioactive lemon. The author’s insightful offhand comments and wry humor mark every passage. But perhaps the most unexpected aspect of this book with a boys’ sport at its core was its feminist streak–subtle at first, but by the end of the story, there’s no missing it.

If you know the world of ice hockey well, Backman’s portrayal of the coaches, players, parents, and fans will have you nodding your head and grinning in recognition. But even if you don’t know a faceoff from an offsides, Beartown’s story resonates with its examination of family, community, sacrifice, and what it means to be a good person.

Where the Crawdads Sing, by Delia Owens

where-the-crawdads-sing-cover

Where the Crawdads Sing was the book that you saw everywhere this summer—the season’s “It” book. I’ll be honest, with an “It” book, I usually wait until I’m pretty sure that we don’t have another TwilightFifty Shades of Grey, or Girl on a Train on our hands—or at least until the paperback is released. But I was heading out to the beach and in need of something to hold my attention between naps, so I took a leap and bought the hardcover. I’m not sorry; this was a solid, emotional read with some unexpected twists.

It’s the story of a remarkable girl, Kya, called “the Marsh Girl” by the denizens of the small nearby town on the North Carolina coast. Abandoned as a very young child, first by her beloved mother, then by her older siblings, and finally by her abusive father, she manages to avoid the authorities long enough for them to lose interest in capturing her, then essentially raises herself in the wild. Though a few of the townspeople provide her with subtle assistance, most consider her a freak. As she grows older, a careful friendship with an older boy tempers her loneliness and gives her the tools to educate herself; then a less careful friendship with another young man leads to heartbreak and tragedy.

The book does require some suspension of belief. The idea of a six-year-old girl surviving on her own in the marshes without starving or injuring herself is a bit of a stretch. (On the other hand, I read books where time travel and vampires are de rigueur, so who am I to judge?) I also found it hard to accept Kya’s character development through her relationships–by her late teens she had been abandoned by everyone she ever loved, which made her initial reaction to a major betrayal difficult to process. And the ending, while surprising and emotional, does rely on the reader to avoid thinking too hard about how secrets are revealed.

Still, a good story populated by appealing personalities trumps all for me, and the author does a beautiful job of incorporating the marsh and its wildlife as characters worthy of a lonely young girl’s love. Kya may be lonely, but with the marshland around her, she is never alone.

Ordinary Grace, by William Kent Krueger

Ordinary Grace

“All the dying that summer began with the death of a child, a boy with golden hair and thick glasses….” And with this first line, the tone is set for Ordinary Grace, a quiet coming-of-age novel set in small-town Minnesota in the 1960s.

Frank Drum is just thirteen years old when the serene town of New Bremen is disrupted by a series of disturbing, deadly events, one of which causes Frank’s world to crack. With his sweet, stuttering younger brother Jake as his shadow, Frank pokes and prods the dark corners of the town, eavesdropping and exploring, trying to make sense of what has happened.

Frank’s father is the town pastor. Though he was originally on the path to become a lawyer, his searing World War II experiences diverted him to the ministry. Frank’s mother, who thought she was marrying a lawyer, is uncomfortable as the pastor’s wife and resentful of his reliance on faith. This novel is as much about the rifts in this marriage as it is about the disturbances in the town. Secrets are uncovered, faith is tested, grief must be dealt with. But ordinary grace proves to be this family’s salvation, and that grace finds its voice in surprising ways.

An Edgar Award-winning novel, Ordinary Grace is less a mystery book than a portrait of a family and a town in crisis. Frank is a boy who is always on the move, one who will climb out of the bedroom window in the middle of the night without hesitation if it will bring him answers. Jake might doubt his brother’s methods, but he’s by Frank’s side through thick and thin. They are a resilient pair with secrets of their own.

This nostalgic, moving novel manages to be simultaneously sad and uplifting. Frank is telling the story forty years later, with the perspective of time—a wise choice by the author, as it allows the adult’s more mature viewpoint to overlay the child’s experiences. All of the characters are familiar and fully drawn, but Frank’s brother and father are particularly captivating in their generous,loving natures. It is a book that reminds me strongly of Peace Like a River, by Leif Enger—one of my favorite novels of all time. It lingers sweetly in the mind long after its central mystery is laid to rest.