The Pains and Promises of Parenthood in Fredrik Backman’s Beartown
Becoming a parent can simultaneously open your heart to some of the greatest joys you can even know this side of heaven while also exposing and leaving you vulnerable to the frailties of life, the inevitability of pain, and the certainty of death. If this was not clear before, the previous two years can certainly attest to the frailty of life. COVID, however, did not create this frailty; it just further revealed it.
My own daughter was born in December 2019 and got to experience, as much as an infant can, the reality of the B.C. (Before COVID) world, prior to everyone’s lives being shaken by circumstances outside of their control, the type of circumstances that leave us all grasping for any bit of stability we can find. Certainty and stability are two things that I reach for when I do not have them and cling to when I find any glimmer of them.
Becoming a parent removed just about every shred of certainty I had about the world and my ability to control circumstances. Parenting can be an extreme act of vulnerability, as your life is poured into the life of another in sacrifices of sleep, certainty, and sanity. We do all this for the sake of our children, knowing that, ultimately, we may not be able to protect them from the frailty of the world.
I may not remember a lot from the first few weeks of being a new father due to lack of sleep, increase in stress due to changing jobs, and having a baby right before Christmas. But I do recall many nights that spilled into days of feeding a slightly jaundiced baby every two to three hours. Many of these nights/days, I had a baby and bottle in one arm and a book by Fredrik Backman in the other. By the time my baby was born, I had made my way through A Man Called Ove and My Grandmother Asked Me to Tell You She’s Sorry and had grown to love Backman’s ability to punch me in the gut with simple prose, leaving me laughing one minute and weeping the next.
The words used to describe the curmudgeonly predisposed Ove and his relationship with his deceased wife linger with me even now. Backman’s narrator says of this man called Ove that “he was a man of black and white. And she was color. All the color he had.” When Backman drops a moment or sentiment on someone, he does not parse words and tends to go straight for the heart. This is perhaps especially the case in Beartown and Us Against You, which primarily follow the Andersson family and their life in a small, hockey-centered town in the woods of Switzerland. One of the phrases that weaves in and out of the book is “we can’t protect our children.” It is spoken and thought by Kira, the mother in the Andersson family, at many pivotal moments in Beartown. So much so that it takes on an almost liturgical nature as it is repeated after each tragedy, loss, or circumstance outside of her and her family’s control.
“We can’t protect our children.”
“We can’t protect our children.”
“We can’t protect our children.”
These are the words I kept reading as I held my newborn daughter, hoping and praying that I would be able to protect her. That I would be able to keep her safe from danger. That I could possibly keep the world from falling down around her or right on top of her. For Kira, her husband, Peter, and the rest of the Andersson family, the reality that she couldn’t keep her family safe and protected first struck with the loss of their son, Isak, who was sickly as a child and one night stopped breathing. This is a loss that has more than lingered, marking their family every day and in every interaction, between the parents and between the parents and their children. This loss is the reason that Maya, the Andersson’s daughter, feels the need to protect her parents from further pain. After undergoing an immense trauma herself, she is still thinking about her parents and how to protect them. Backman writes,
Even then, in the police station in Hed, [Maya] knew she would survive this. Even then she knew that her mom and dad wouldn’t. Parents don’t heal…. And she could see in her parents’ eyes how the story made the same terrible sentence echo through them, over and over again. “We can’t protect our children.”
Beartown, and the eponymous town in which the story takes place, is not without hope. Bleak as it seems with the town on the brink of total collapse due to job shortages and the steady expanse of urban and suburban population movements, Beartown knows that they have what many other towns do not: the Bear. For Beartown natives, the Bear is the fighting spirit and will to survive the hardships of a frozen Swiss winter that would otherwise destroy anyone else. The Bear shows up many times and in several different people throughout the story and generally does so within the context of hockey. The aging coach of the Beartown A-team, Sune, had seen the Bear only a few times in his life. Rare as the Bear is, its appearance is unmistakable.
The Bear first appears in rising hockey star Kevin Erdahl when he is a young child and is found, sobbing and frostbitten, in the woods practicing obsessively after losing a game. The Bear also appears in Amat who, although he is small for his age and deals with crushing prejudice and racism due to being a poor immigrant, is one of the fastest skaters the town has seen and has more love for the game than any native of Beartown.
However, the Bear is not simply confined to those who love hockey. The Bear also helps people in Beartown survive through the uncertainties of life in their small, ever-shrinking, ever-frozen town. When people give themselves over to the Bear, they are often violent in order to achieve their ends. For Kevin, violence becomes the solution to having a girl he cannot have. For many people in the town, violence becomes the solution to their anguish and pain of struggling to survive as they cope by fighting people traveling through the town. The Bear is powerful but not often compassionate. It seeks only its own survival, often at the expense of others.
In Amat, however, we see that “the Bear” is not all that he is. Unlike many people in Beartown who have, in many ways, given themselves over to the ferociousness of the Bear and have become violent people—in their homes, in the bleachers, and in the bars—Amat also has a gentle strength in him more akin to what his own mother, Fatima, calls the Lion. She says to a 14-year-old Amat after a grueling series of practices that involved diminishing feedback from an adult coach that “you might be playing with bears. But that doesn’t mean you have to forget that you’re a lion.” Fatima is a constant source of encouragement and an example to follow for what hard work and humility should look like. Fatima is raising Amat to not just have the Bear in him but to have a gentleness and kindness to him that is not often seen in Beartown.
As parents, the Anderssons and Fatima are raising their children in a tough town, a town in which Peter Andersson himself grew up in with a home that was filled with alcohol and bruises. However, each of these parents are attempting to carve out better lives for their children. One in which the Bear doesn’t take over but can be a source of strength amidst a life of kindness, persistence, and gentleness. For the Andersson’s daughter, Maya, we see that she is able to overcome the desire for vengeance and instead make a life for herself away from Beartown and away from a place that, in many ways, literally threatened her life. For Amat, Fatima’s persistence, strength, and gentleness are carried on in his life as someone who advocates for others even when it could threaten his status as a hockey player. For these two families in particular, they want their children not just to be protected but to flourish. They want them to have better lives than they had.
Throughout Beartown, Backman gives powerful examples of both the hardships and the triumphs parents face in raising children. While parents may not always be able to protect their children, they can help strengthen them when struggles arrive and comfort them when they are unable to stay safe. For parents and caregivers, Beartown is an encouraging and hopeful story about the realities of facing and embracing the respective pains and promises of parenthood. It’s a story especially meaningful in light of these pandemic years, giving us a picture of parents and families in difficult situations growing closer together in their love and support of one another while also struggling with the fear of being unable to protect their loved ones.
Stories like Beartown can be of deep encouragement. While the world remains uncertain, parents foster both strength and compassion in their children in a way that can help them to not be overcome. Backman’s families in Beartown attest to both the beauty and the brokenness of the world. The Anderssons demonstrate how a family can come together in the midst of tragedy and not let it consume them. Peter and Kira raise their children, Maya in particular, in a way that her strength and spirit, the Bear in her, does not lead her to violence but to compassion and conviction to stand up for herself without putting another person down. Their examples give us a framework for how to endure the long walk through tragedy, whether it is the loss of a child or the onset and duration of a pandemic. Like all of life, parenting is messy, and often painful. But our children are worth everything we give them, and Beartown is a beautiful depiction of this sacrificial life.