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.
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.
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.