Us Against You tells the story of a hockey-crazed small town through the course of a rebuilding season. Canadian readers might think they already know the story, but this time the small town is in Sweden, and the team’s star player has just raped a high school girl. Hockey is the underlying force behind most characters’ decisions, but very little of the novel actually takes place on the ice.
While this book is technically a sequel to 2017’s Beartown, Us Against You stands on its own. Plot and character are patiently introduced with context and memorable descriptors to help new readers along, in an easily-digestible style that’s more like oral storytelling. It’s notable to write a novel that begins several months after a rape, rather than building the action towards it. Rapes are cinematic and easy fodder for storytellers, but in real life it’s more painful, complicated and interesting to study the psychological repercussions. Author Frederick Backman deserves credit for addressing them.
In Us Against You, the town rallies behind its hockey star at first, shaming the female accusing him of rape. But a few months later (and within the book’s first few pages) the town’s opinions have turned and the hockey star has skipped town. Mess and drama linger, and everyone in town is affected. This town is filled with rage, gossip, and spies, and it seems the smallest symbolic gestures can set people off. When someone posts a video of the rival team’s flag burning, everybody freaks out.
Frederick Backman does a commendable job carrying a chess board’s worth of characters through the novel, bouncing and weaving them off each other so everything feels like it happens for a reason. But sometimes the inciting incidents feel flimsy, and Backman’s penchant for heavy-handed one-liners doesn’t help. Most chapters trade two storylines, and each five-hundred-word section seems to end with a quote like, “you’re never finished with a family,” or “hockey is hockey. A game. Make-believe.” When readers are charging through nine months and a few dozen characters we need all the help we can get, (and Backman likely needed the thematic guidance as he ripped through the writing in less than a year) but it can feel like he doesn’t trust the reader to see his ideas.
Still, there are plenty of interesting messages to ponder. Can small towns be happy places, or are they always self-consuming and gossip-ridden? How are husbands and wives supposed to behave, and what work needs to be done to make a marriage last? What motivates a hockey team, and what do they need to succeed? A rape is a brutal demonstration of power, and Backman shows us how that powerlessness infects the whole family of the girl who was raped, and in some ways, the whole town.
(Photo: Amy Attas)