Tuesday, June 6, 2023

Us Against You by Fredrik Backman

Us Against You
by Fredrik Backman
Published March 2019 by Washington Square Press
448 pages

Publisher's Summary: 
Have you ever seen a town fall? Ours did. Have you ever seen a town rise? Ours did that, too.

A small community tucked deep in the forest, Beartown is home to tough, hardworking people who don’t expect life to be easy or fair. No matter how difficult times get, they’ve always been able to take pride in their local ice hockey team. So it’s a cruel blow when they hear that Beartown ice hockey might soon be disbanded. What makes it worse is the obvious satisfaction that all the former Beartown players, who now play for a rival team in the neighboring town of Hed, take in that fact. As the tension mounts between the two adversaries, a newcomer arrives who gives Beartown hockey a surprising new coach and a chance at a comeback.

Soon a team starts to take shape around Amat, the fastest player you’ll ever see; Benji, the intense lone wolf; always dutiful and eager-to-please Bobo; and Vidar, a born-to-be-bad troublemaker. But bringing this team together proves to be a challenge as old bonds are broken, new ones are formed, and the town’s enmity with Hed grows more and more acute.

As the big game approaches, the not-so-innocent pranks and incidents between the communities pile up and their mutual contempt intensifies. By the time the last goal is scored, a resident of Beartown will be dead, and the people of both towns will be forced to wonder if, after everything, the game they love can ever return to something as simple and innocent as a field of ice, two nets, and two teams. Us against you.

My Thoughts: 
When you don't start reading a trilogy until after the third book is out in the world, it's easy to say that you knew there would be more books after the first one. I'm pretty sure, though, that I would have felt that way even before Us Against You was published. The characters in Beartown left us wanting to know more. How will Maya, Amat, and Benji move on? What friendships will survive what happened in the first book and which will fall apart? What new friendships will grow? It's a given that hockey will play a role, but how? And what new truths about community, family, friendship, and humanity will Backman explore?

This is the fifth novel by Backman that I've read and Backman's commentary about the human condition is something I've always loved about this books. As Kirkus Reviews says, "evident in all his novels is an apparent ability to state a truth about humanity with break taking elegance." Yes, one could argue that the story itself should revel those same truths. And this is the first time that I've actually felt like Backman should stop telling me so much and just show me through the actions of his characters. I really, really wanted to get to the people, to find out what was going to happen to them.  the Medium reviewer says, the novel was frequently "baggy and digressive." Even having said that, that same Medium reviewer said this novel was "impeccably written work that explores the love and passion, and the sense of community." Also true. Which makes this still a novel that I thoroughly enjoyed, even though I thought it was 50 pages too long. 
"People say that leadership is about making difficult decisions, unpalatable and unpopular decisions. "Do your job," leaders are constantly being told. The impossible part of the job is, of course, that a leader can carry on leading only as long as someone follow him, and people's reactions to leadership are always the same: if a decision of yours benefits me, you're fair, and if the same decision harms me, you're a tyrant. The truth about most people is as simple as it is unbearable: we rarely want what is best for everyone; we mostly want what's best for ourselves."
It's that kind of observation that makes readers face uncomfortable truths about themselves and makes readers forgive those 50 pages too man. 

One of the other things I've admired about Backman's writing is his ability to humanize all of his characters. Some of them are not a "good" as others, some more prone to violence, others more prone to be cruel. But Backman tends to readers see the reasons those characters have become those people, giving readers the ability to see them as fully human and to see the goodness in them (and, I'd add, push us to try to find the same in real people). In Us Against You, though, Backman has introduced a new character, a politician that is more one-dimensional. He is clearly the bad guy here, despite any thought that he is taking on the established political hierarchy. I kept waiting for that moment when Backman would revel a side of Richard Theo that would make him understandable. It never came. Perhaps that's a revelation of another sort. 

I may have become even more attached to some of the characters than I was in Beartown (I see you playing with my emotions, Mr. Backman). I had to race through this one to make sure all of them would be ok. Here's the thing with Backman's books - some of them won't be, some of them will flourish. Some that I didn't care for in the first book will become dear to me, others will fall out of favor. And hockey? Hockey is, once again, just a device to show us those truths about people. 

Did I love it as much as I did Beartown? No. But it's still a mighty fine encore. It could stand on its own but I wouldn't recommend reading it without reading Beartown first. 

1 comment:

  1. Thanks for the review. The concept is similar to cricket but here whole countries get involved.