To Cook a Bear by Mikael Niemi

The Pastor investigates…

😀 😀 😀 😀 😀

To Cook a BearWhen the Pastor goes walking round the woods and hills around his village in Pajala in the north of Sweden, seeking new botanical specimens, he is always accompanied by the young Sami boy, Jussi. Jussi had run away from his Lapland home and come south, and the Pastor had come across him living wild and near to starving. The Pastor took him in to his own family, and now Jussi is his faithful assistant. The Pastor, we gradually discover, is the founder and leader of the Lutheran Pietist Revival movement, Lars Levi Laestadius – a real person, who as well as his religious work made a name for himself in the scientific field through his work on botany. When a local maid goes missing and is later found dead, the villagers believe it was the work of a killer bear and they set out to hunt the creature down. The Pastor’s scientific knowledge and keen powers of observation lead him to think that the girl died at the hands of a human, but he can’t persuade the local law officer, Sheriff Brahe, to believe him. And then another girl is attacked…

This is one of these books that, despite having a murder mystery at its heart, falls very definitely into the category of literary fiction. As the Pastor and Jussi go about their investigation, the author slowly builds a detailed picture of mid-nineteenth century life here in this remote northern area where Sweden and Lapland meet, not far from the Finnish border. Life is hard, superstition is rife, and drunkenness is a curse on the population. The Pastor, himself of Sami origin, wants to stamp out the drunkenness and bring education to the poor so that they can lift themselves out of their physical and spiritual poverty. This is at the root of his Revival, and while it brings him the loyalty of many of the poorer people, it also makes him many enemies among the rich and powerful, or those who love alcohol more than God. Niemi assumes some knowledge of Laestadius and his movement, which may be the case for Swedes, but I had never heard of him. However, the story stands strongly on its own and a quick visit to my friend wikipedia filled in the background details after I’d finished reading.

Lars Levi Laestadius

Niemi shows how the Sami were treated not just as second-class citizens but as inferior beings, studied by anthropologists in the way botanists study plants. Laestadius’ movement was beginning to teach Sami and other children from these remote regions to read and write, and Niemi shows us this through the Pastor teaching Jussi, who is our narrator for most of the book. Jussi talks about the wonder of letters and how the written word seems to have given him a concept of self – the Pastor recording him in the parish register being the first time he felt that he existed beyond the moment, into a past and a future. He slowly learns to read, having to tackle not just his own native Sami language, but Swedish and even a little Latin so that he can assist with recording the Pastor’s botanical work. His wonder and musings on the importance of writing are beautifully done, and he is clearly a metaphor for what Niemi sees as Laestadius’ major contribution to the advancement of his own people, Niemi himself having been born in Pajala about a century after the time the book is set.

The letters by themselves were silent. But your lips could blow life into them. Turn them into objects, animals, names of people. And equally curious was the fact they continued speaking even when you had closed your mouth. When you looked at the letters, they were converted into words inside your head. No, not words – bodies. My eyes look at “Maria”, at the five letters, the five consecutive shapes, but in my heart and mind I see my beloved. Her cheeks, her shining eyes, her hands holding mine.

We also see the day to day life of the villagers; their work on their farms, their customs around marriage, the food they eat, the clothes they wear, their saunas. The harsh winters are endured here, so close to the Arctic, and the short summers enjoyed despite the hard work of preparing for the next winter. Life is physical and often cruel, and there is no sentimentality about the wild creatures that present a threat or a food source. Some of the most brutal scenes are tough to read, but they ring true.

The plot itself is slow-moving in the extreme, but again that seems to arise naturally out of the way of life. Distances are far when they must be walked in cold, wet weather, and there is no detective force to call in when a crime is committed – just the local Sheriff and his constable, neither of whom has any training, or indeed, desire, to deal with anything more complicated than a drunken brawl. Forensic science doesn’t exist, although Niemi allows the Pastor’s general scientific knowledge to play a part, and finds ways to bring in some of the new sciences happening in the wider world, such as daguerrotypes.

Mikael Niemi
Mikael Niemi

The writing is excellent as is the characterisation, of Jussi and the Pastor especially, but also of a host of secondary characters, such as the Sheriff, the Pastor’s wife, and the girl Jussi loves from afar. The translation by Deborah Bragan-Turner is flawless, with enough Swedish, Finnish and Sami phrases to keep the importance of language in this place before the reader, but always used in such a way that the meaning is either given or is clear from the context. Although more of a depiction of a way of life, the mystery ticks along steadily, giving the book a sense of direction, and the resolution is completely appropriate to the story – if you read it you’ll see what I mean. And I hope that you do read it – a truly absorbing novel, and highly recommended.

NB This book was provided for review by the publisher, Quercus.

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22 thoughts on “To Cook a Bear by Mikael Niemi

  1. This sounds marvellous – so much my thing! 😄 It immediately brought to mind The Bell in the Lake which I loved. I must also add that were it not for your review I wouldn’t have given this book a thought. I’ve seen it around a fair bit but the title turned me away from bothering to look deeper. See what power you have? (Publishers, send FF a bonus box of chocolate!) 😂

    Liked by 1 person

  2. Glad you enjoyed this one. It was an unexpected hit for me last year. Having never heard of the Laestadian church before reading Niemi’s novel I came across it again when watching All the Sins via Walter Presents earlier this year.

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  3. I’m already looking forward to reading this! Your review managed to capture very well many elements that are appealing to me. Slow moving is fine by me when the story reflects a steady rhythm of life and the writing’s fine. Thank you for the introduction!

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  4. This sounds excellent, FictionFan. As a language and writing person, I’m especially drawn to the focus on writing. And the look at the Sami people sounds fascinating. I know very little about that culture, so it would be nice to learn something. I was also thinking about your comment about the literary nature of the book. There are some stories – and this sounds like one of them – that are better told with a literary style. It suits the story, if that makes sense. And a book does not have to be particularly fast-paced to keep the reader’s interest…

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  5. This might be interesting for me to read, because my local area has a lot of the Laestadian Lutherans in it (called Old Apostolic Lutherans). Unfortunately, the manifestations of their religion in modern days here is typical of many apostolic religions, most particularly in its repression of women.

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  6. Great review, FF! It’s a book that would probably never have crossed my radar, and now I want to read it. I love a good novel that has me researching the fact behind the fiction.

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  7. Wow! Great review of what sounds like a wonderful book. I have always wondered why humans migrated to places where life is so harsh, where one spends so much time on surviving that not much else gets done. I watched a Youtube documentary a few months ago about life in Siberia (Oimjakon) and one of the “most dangerous ways to school.” Not pleasant, at least to my wimpy, spoiled self.

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  8. This sounds brilliant and not just the setting which immediately had me hooked. I don’t know anything about Laestadius or his church or the Sami and like Sandra I wouldn’t have picked this up on the title so I agree, extra chocolates for you!

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  9. This one sounds interesting, and your appreciation for it shines brightly. Not sure it’s my cup of tea, but that’s on me … not the author or you. I’m with those thinking you’ve earned extra chocolates though!

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  10. The book seems very interesting despite having a slow-moving plot. Maybe because there are so many interesting aspects regarding their lives the book makes me curious. I will see if I can find a copy at my library.

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  11. This really sounds just up my street, with the combination of the murder mystery, the social elements, bringing in scientific advances from the wider world, and the stuff about a Christian movement I’ve never heard of! I mean, it sounds like a book that could have been written with me as an audience in mind – I’ll definitely be picking this up.

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  12. I’m sure I would learn a lot from reading this, I have heard of the Sami people of course, but don’t know much about their culture. The mystery looks intriguing too, thanks for the great review and recommendation.

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  13. The setting in the far north of Sweden and the historic setting is very interesting, and you have convinced me that it would be worth my while to read it.

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  14. I’m really intrigued by this. I’ve been noticing an increase in literary novels with a mystery at its heart. It’s almost like authors are starting to recognize that us readers need a little more motivation to make it to the end, so i’m all for this blending of genre and literary fiction 🙂

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