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.
Here is a declaration of love for all the big and small, bright and dark stories that give form and color to our communities. With immense compassion and insight, Fredrik Backman—“the Dickens of our age” (Green Valley News)—reveals how loyalty, friendship, and kindness can carry a town through its most challenging days.
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Read an Excerpt
Chapter 1: It’s Going to Be Someone’s Fault 1 It’s Going to Be Someone’s Fault
Have you ever seen a town fall? Ours did. We’ll end up saying that violence came to Beartown this summer, but that will be a lie; the violence was already here. Because sometimes hating one another is so easy that it seems incomprehensible that we ever do anything else.
We’re a small community in the forest; people say that no roads lead here, just past. The economy coughs every time it takes a deep breath; the factory cuts its workforce each year like a child that thinks no one will notice the cake in the fridge getting smaller if you take a little bit from each side. If you lay a current map of the town over an old one, the main shopping street and the little strip known as “the center” seem to shrink like bacon in a hot pan. We have an ice rink but not much else. But on the other hand, as people usually say here: What the hell else do you need?
People driving through say that Beartown doesn’t live for anything but hockey, and some days they may be right. Sometimes people have to be allowed to have something to live for in order to survive everything else. We’re not mad, we’re not greedy; say what you like about Beartown, but the people here are tough and hardworking. So we built a hockey team that was like us, that we could be proud of, because we weren’t like you. When people from the big cities thought something seemed too hard, we just grinned and said, “It’s supposed to be hard.” Growing up here wasn’t easy; that’s why we did it, not you. We stood tall, no matter the weather. But then something happened, and we fell.
There’s a story about us before this one, and we’re always going to carry the guilt of that. Sometimes good people do terrible things in the belief that they’re trying to protect what they love. A boy, the star of the hockey team, raped a girl. And we lost our way. A community is the sum of its choices, and when two of our children said different things, we believed him. Because that was easier, because if the girl was lying our lives could carry on as usual. When we found out the truth, we fell apart, taking the town with us. It’s easy to say that we should have done everything differently, but perhaps you wouldn’t have acted differently, either. If you’d been afraid, if you’d been forced to pick a side, if you’d known what you had to sacrifice. Perhaps you wouldn’t be as brave as you think. Perhaps you’re not as different from us as you hope.
This is the story of what happened afterward, from one summer to the following winter. It is about Beartown and the neighboring town of Hed, and how the rivalry between two hockey teams can grow into a mad struggle for money and power and survival. It is a story about hockey rinks and all the hearts that beat around them, about people and sports and how they sometimes take turns carrying each other. About us, people who dream and fight. Some of us will fall in love, others will be crushed; we’ll have good days and some very bad days. This town will rejoice, but it will also start to burn. There’s going to be a terrible bang.
Some girls will make us proud; some boys will make us great. Young men dressed in different colors will fight to the death in a dark forest. A car will drive too fast through the night. We will say that it was a traffic accident, but accidents happen by chance, and we will know that we could have prevented this one. This one will be someone’s fault.
People we love will die. We will bury our children beneath our most beautiful trees.
Reading Group Guide
This reading group guide for Us Against You includes an introduction, discussion questions, and ideas for enhancing your book club. The suggested questions are intended to help your reading group find new and interesting angles and topics for your discussion. We hope that these ideas will enrich your conversation and increase your enjoyment of the book.
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, its residents have 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, a surprising new coach who gives Beartown hockey a chance at a comeback.
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 the people of both towns will be forced to wonder if, after everything, the game they love can ever return to something as simple as a field of ice, two nets, and two teams. Us against you.
Topics & Questions for Discussion
1. Backman describes the struggle between Beartown and Hed as one between the Bear and the Bull. What does this metaphor represent besides two fearsome animals fighting each other? What do these symbols say about the character of each town?
2. Early in the book, Maya and Ana retreat to a special place far from the rest of Beartown. Read Maya’s song, “The Island” on pp. 59–60. What do you think this little piece of land means to both of them?
3. Kira makes sacrifices so that Peter can be manager of Beartown hockey. Does Peter make sacrifices for his family, too? Discuss the way their relationship changes over the course of the book.
4. Peter tells Ann-Katrin: “I’m afraid the club might demand more from your sons than it can give back to them.” (page 155). Bobo, Benji, and Amat must take their place in the world of men when they join the A-team. How does this change force them to grow up? In what ways does it expose their immaturities? What are the different ways each boy tries to fit in with and be accepted by the older players? In the end, are Peter’s fears of what the club will demand of the players justified?
5. People from Hed burn a Beartown Jersey in their town square. This event doesn’t hurt anyone physically, but would you still consider it an act of violence? How does this small symbolic act become amplified and have the power to do so much relational damage?
6. What special challenges do Maya and Ana face as they near adulthood? Do you think two such different girls will be able to maintain their friendship as they head down separate paths?
7. “When we describe how the violence between these two towns started, most of us will no longer remember what came first” (page 46). What do you think the tipping point was? What do you think the novel says about human beings’ innate tendency toward violence?
8. A theme in Us Against You is tribalism versus community. Both dynamics are grounded in a sense of loyalty formed around a shared identity, but what makes them different? How can a strong community become insular and intolerant?
9. Two outsiders come to town, Elisabeth Zackell and Richard Theo. How does each person understand the culture in Beartown, and how do they use that understanding to their individual advantage?
10. “People’s reactions to leadership are always the same: if your decisions benefit me, you’re fair, and if the same decision harms me, you’re a tyrant.” (page 197). Are there any characters in Beartown who act against their own self-interest? What do you think are their reasons for doing so?
11. When Ana breaks Benji’s trust and reveals his secret, do you understand her action? Is what she does to Benji made more forgivable because of the circumstances?
12. Retaliation is a constant theme throughout the book. Are there any characters who try to break this cycle of violence? What do you think it takes for this pattern to be broken?
13. Richard Theo says to Peter: “They rule with the help of violence. A democracy can’t allow that. Anyone who becomes powerful because they’ve physically fought their way to the top needs to be opposed.” (page 271) Do you agree with Theo? Does Theo rule with the help of violence?
14. Sports has the power to divide and the power to unite. On balance, do you think Beartown would be better off with or without its hockey club?
15. “We will say ‘things like this are no one’s fault,’ but of course they are. Deep down we will know the truth. It’s plenty of people’s fault. Ours.” (page 293) Do you agree with this statement, or are their forces outside of the Beartown citizens’ control that are, in part, responsible for the violence?
Enhance Your Book Club
1. Interview fanatical fans of any sport. Ask them why they feel such a strong connection to their team. See if you can match their motivations to a character in Us Against You.
2. Tom Hanks will be starring as the title character in in a film adaptation of Fredrik Backman’s novel A Man Called Ove. There are so many great characters in Beartown; who would you cast to play them in a movie?
3. Research a local or popular sports rivalry (e.g. the New York Yankees and Boston Red Socks; Los Angeles Lakers and Boston Celtics; Green Bay Packers and Chicago Bears; Detroit Red Wings and Chicago Blackhawks). How are their rivalries like the rivalry between Hed and Beartown? Are there off-the-field reasons that this rivalry is such an important one?
4. Pick a theme or scene from the book to draw inspiration from and write eight–sixteen lines of lyrics for a song that captures the emotions and tone of the scene. Look to Maya’s songs in the book for examples.