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Exclusive Book Preview: ‘The Winners’ by Fredrik Backman

‘A Man Called Ove’ author returns to hockey-obsessed Beartown in his new novel

Fredrik Backman the Winners
Atria Books / Courtesy of Linnéa Jonasson Bernholm & Appendix fotografi

The Swedish author Fredrik Backman is best known for his megabest-selling 2012 novel A Man Called Ove — soon to find new fans with the release of a film version, A Man Called Otto, starring Tom Hanks, in December. But many of his readers have fallen just as hard for his Beartown books, the basis for the HBO series of the same name and centered around a Swedish forest town’s hockey team.

The often dark, moving story that began with 2016’s Beartown and the 2017 follow-up Us Against You continues (and ends) in the last novel in the trilogy, The Winners, on sale Sept. 27.

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The book, which works as a standalone read, begins with a devastating storm that leaves a path of destruction in its wake, adding heat to the simmering rivalry between Beartown and the nearby, less-prosperous town of Hed. It’s a world full of both conflict and kindness, where, as the narrator notes, “sport is about much more than sport.”

Enjoy this exclusive excerpt from the first few chapters of The Winners.


“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 exaggeration 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 together 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 everyone else by invisible threads of relationships and loyalties and debts: the ice rink and the factory, the hockey team and the politicians, league position and money, sports and employment opportunities, childhood friends and teammates, neighbors and colleagues and families. That’s made people stick together and survive out here, but it’s also made us commit terrible crimes against each other.

It isn’t enough for things to go well for us, things also need to go to hell for them, only then can we be properly happy.

From above we probably look just like two ordinary forest towns, hardly more than villages in some people’s eyes. The only thing that really separates Beartown and Hed is actually a winding road through the trees. It doesn’t even look that long, but you’ll soon learn that it’s a serious walk if you turn up and try it when the temperature’s below freezing and there’s a headwind — and there aren’t any other sort of temperatures and winds here.

We hate Hed, and Hed hates us. If we win every other hockey game throughout the entire season but lose just one game against them, it feels like a failed season. It isn’t enough for things to go well for us, things also need to go to hell for them, only then can we be properly happy. Beartown plays in green jerseys with a bear on, and Hed plays in red with a bull, which sounds simple, but the colors make it impossible to say where hockey problems end and all the other problems start. There isn’t a single picket fence in Beartown that’s painted red, and not one in Hed that’s painted green, regardless of whether the home owner is interested in hockey or not, so no one knows if the hockey clubs took their colors from the fences or vice versa. If the hate gave rise to the clubs, or if the clubs gave rise to the hate. You want to understand hockey towns? Then you need to understand that here, sport is about much more than sport.

But do you want to understand the people? Really understand them? Then you also need to understand that very soon a terrible natural disaster is going to destroy things we love. Because while we may live in a hockey town, first and foremost we are forest folk. We are surrounded by trees and rocks and land that has seen species arise and be wiped out over thousands of years, we may pretend that we’re big and strong, but we can’t fight the environment. One day the wind starts blowing here, and during the night that follows it feels like it’s never going to stop.

It’s the worst storm in a generation in these parts. Maybe we say that about every storm, but this one was beyond compare. It’s been said that the snow might be late this year, but that the winds are early, August ends with sultry, ominous heat before autumn kicks the door in at the end of the month and the temperature tumbles in free fall. The natural world around us becomes erratic and aggressive, the dogs and hunters feel it first, but soon everyone else does too.

We notice the warnings, yet still the storm arrives with such force that it knocks the breath out of us. It devastates the forest and blocks out the sky, it attacks our homes and our towns like a grown man beating a child. Ancient tree trunks collapse, trees that have stood as immovable as rocks are suddenly no stronger than blades of grass beneath someone’s foot, the wind roars so loudly in our ears that the people nearby just see the trees fall without even hearing them crack. In among the houses, roof panels and tiles are torn off and thrown heavily through the air, razor-sharp projectiles hunting out anyone who is simply trying to get home. The forest falls across roads until it is as impossible to get here as it is to leave, the power cuts that follow leave the towns blind at night, and cellphones only work intermittently. Anyone who manages to get hold of anyone they love yells the same thing into their phone: stay indoors, stay indoors!


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But one young man from Beartown is driving, panic stricken, in a small car along narrow roads to reach the hospital in Hed. He doesn’t dare really leave home, but he doesn’t dare stay either, his pregnant wife is sitting beside him and it’s time now, storm or no storm. He prays to God the way atheists in the trenches do, she screams as the tree crashes mercilessly onto the hood and the metal crumples so violently that she’s thrown against the windshield. No one hears them.


The wind isn’t whistling across the building on the outskirts of Hed, it’s howling. The walls are sucked outward, the floor is vibrating, making the red Hed Hockey jerseys and pennants hanging all around the walls swing. In hindsight, the four children in the house will say that it felt like the universe was trying to kill them. Tess is the oldest, 17, followed by 15-year-old Tobias, 13-year-old Ted, and 7-year-old Ture. They’re scared, like all children, but they’re awake and prepared, because they aren’t altogether like other children. Their mother is a midwife, their dad’s a fireman, and sometimes it feels like crises are the only occasions in which this family truly functions. As soon as they realized what was happening the children were out in the yard gathering together the patio furniture and swings and climbing frame so that they wouldn’t be thrown through the windows when the wind caught hold of them.

Their dad, Johnny, ran off to help in a yard down the street. Their mother, Hannah, called everyone they knew to ask if they wanted anything. That was a lot of calls, because they seem to know everyone, both of them were born and raised in Hed, and seeing as one works at the fire station and the other at the hospital, there isn’t really anyone who doesn’t know who they are. This is their community, their children learned to ride their bikes in the same cul-de-sac where they themselves learned, and are being brought up according to simple principles: love your family, work hard, be happy when Hed Hockey wins a game, and even happier when Beartown Hockey take a thrashing. Help people who need help, be a good neighbor and never forget where you come from.

The parents don’t teach this last point to their children by saying it, but by doing it. They teach them that you can argue about everything, but when it really matters you stick together, because no one stands a chance if they’re alone.

The storm outside the window interrupted a different sort of storm inside, the parents were having another one of their fights, one of the worst. Hannah is a small, slight woman and she’s standing by the kitchen window biting her cheeks now, rubbing her bruises. She’s married to an idiot. Johnny is tall and broad-shouldered, with a thick beard and heavy fists. As a hockey player he was known for being the first to drop his gloves and start fighting, the mad bull in Hed Hockey’s badge could easily have been a caricature of him. He’s fiery and stubborn, old-fashioned and prejudiced, one of those stereotypically mouthy high school guys who never really grew up. He played hockey as long as they let him, then he became a fireman, swapped one locker room for another, and carried on competing in everything: who can bench press the most, run faster through the forest, drink the most beer at the barbecue.

She knew from the very first day with him that what made him charming could turn dangerous one day, sore losers can become aggressive, a passionate temperament can turn to violence. “A long fuse but a lot of powder, they’re the worst,” as her father-in-law used to say. There’s a vase in the hall that was once smashed into a hundred pieces, then carefully glued back together again, so that Hannah wouldn’t forget.

Johnny comes in from the yard. He glances at her to see if she’s still upset. Their fights always end like this, because she’s married to an idiot and he never listens, so something always gets broken.

She often thinks about how tough he tries to persuade everyone that he is, but how incredibly sensitive and thin-skinned he can actually be. When Hed Hockey get beaten it’s as if he gets beaten too. Back in the spring, when the local paper said “Beartown Hockey represents the future, while Hed Hockey stands for everything old-fashioned and obsolete,” he took it personally, as if they had simultaneously said that his entire life and all his values were wrong. The club is the town, and the town is his family — that’s how unshakably loyal he is, and it always brings out the most extreme in him. He always tries to act tough, never show any fear, always the first to run toward disaster.

A few years ago the country suffered terrible forest fires, neither Hed nor Beartown was directly affected, but things were really bad just a couple of hours away. Johnny, Hannah and the children were on holiday for the first time in ages, they were on their way to a water park down south when they heard the news on the radio. The argument started before his phone even rang, because Hannah knew the moment it rang that he’d turn the car around. The children huddled in their seats in the back of the van because they’d seen this before: the same argument, the same yelling, the same clenched fists. Married to an idiot.


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Each day Johnny was away at the forest fires the images on the television news got worse and worse, and every evening Hannah had to pretend she wasn’t at all worried as the children cried themselves to sleep, and every night she went to pieces alone by the kitchen window. Then, at last, he came home, after what might have been one week but which felt like a hundred, emaciated and so filthy that some of it never quite seemed to wash off his skin.

She stood in the kitchen and watched as he got out of a car down by the junction and staggered the last bit of the way on his own, looking like he might crumble into a heap of dust at any moment. Hannah ran to the kitchen door but the children had already seen him, they flew downstairs and pushed past her, tripping over each other on the way out. Hannah stayed by the window and watched as they threw themselves into Johnny’s arms until all four of them were clinging to his huge frame like monkeys: Tobias and Ted around his neck, Tess on his back and little Ture clinging to one arm.

The club is the town, and the town is his family — that’s how unshakeably loyal he is, and it always brings out the most extreme in him.

Their dad was filthy, sweaty and exhausted, but he still picked all four of them up and carried them into the house as if they didn’t weigh anything. That night he slept on a mattress in Ture’s room, and all the other kids ended up dragging their own mattresses in there, too, and it took four nights before Hannah got him back. Before she even felt his arms around her, breathing through his sweater once more. The last morning she was so jealous of her own children and so angry with herself and so tired of holding all her feelings in that she threw that damn vase on the floor.

She glued it back together again, and no one in the family dared speak to her until she was finished. Then her husband sat down beside her on the floor, as usual, and whispered: “Don’t be cross with me, I can’t bear it when you’re cross with me.”

Her voice felt like it was breaking when she managed to reply: “It wasn’t even your fire, darling, it wasn’t even here!” He leaned forward cautiously, she felt his breath on the palms of her hands as he kissed them, then he said: “Any fire is my fire.” How she hated and worshipped the idiot for that. “Your job is to come home. Your only job is to come home,” she reminded him, and he smiled: “I’m here, aren’t I?”

She hit him as hard as she could on his shoulder. She’s met so many idiotic men who tell themselves that they’re the sort who would be first into a burning building to rescue other people, but her idiot is the sort of idiot who actually does that. So they have the same argument every time he goes, because every time she gets just as angry with herself for getting so scared. It always ends with her breaking something. It was a vase that time, and today it was her own knuckles. When the storm began and he immediately went to charge his phone so he was ready, she slammed her fist down onto the sink. Now she’s rubbing the bruises and swearing. She wants him to go, but she hates it at the same time, and this is how it comes out.

He comes into the kitchen, she feels his beard against the back of her neck. He thinks he’s so tough and hard, but really he’s more sensitive than anyone, that’s why he never yells back at her. The storm beats against the window and they both know that the phone will soon ring and he’ll have to leave and then she’ll get angry again. “You need to get worried the day she stops being angry with you, because that will mean she doesn’t love you anymore,” Johnny’s dad told him when they got married. “A long fuse but a lot of powder in that woman, so watch out!” his dad had said with a laugh.

Hannah may be married to an idiot, but she’s hardly that much better herself, her moods can drive Johnny to the brink of exhaustion, and her chaotic behavior drives him mad. He panics when things aren’t in the right place so he knows where everything is, that goes for the fire engine and his wardrobe and the kitchen drawer, and he married someone who doesn’t even think you need to have fixed sides in bed. Hannah went and lay down on one side one night, then on the other side the next night, and he didn’t even know where to start with his frustration. Who doesn’t have fixed sides in bed? And she walks into the house with her shoes on, and doesn’t rinse the washbasin after her, and swaps the butter knives and cheese slicers around so that every damn breakfast turns into a treasure hunt. She’s worse than the kids.

But now, as she reaches up with her hand and runs her fingers through his beard and his hands clasp together on her stomach, none of that matters. They’ve got used to each other. She’s accepted that life with a fireman has a rhythm that other people can never understand. For instance, she’s learned to pee in the dark, because the first few times after they moved in together when she turned the light on in the middle of the night, he woke with a start, thinking it was the light at the station alerting them to a callout. He flew out of bed and got dressed and made it all the way out to the car before she caught up with him wearing just her underwear, wondering what the hell he was doing. It took several more confused nights before she accepted that he wasn’t able to stop behaving like that, and realized that deep down she didn’t really want him to either.

He’s the sort of person who runs toward a fire. No hesitation, no questions, he just runs. People like that are rare, but you know who they are when you see them.

Excerpted from THE WINNERS by Fredrik Backman. Published by Atria Books/Simon and Schuster. Copyright © 2022 by Fredrik Backman. All rights reserved.

Christina Ianzito covers scams and fraud, and is the books editor for and AARP The Magazine. Also a longtime travel writer and editor, she received a 2020 Lowell Thomas Award for travel writing from the Society of American Travel Writers Foundation.

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