It is 1852, and in Sweden’s far north, deep in the Arctic Circle, charismatic preacher and Revivalist Lars Levi Læstadius impassions a poverty-stricken congregation with visions of salvation. But local leaders have reason to resist a shift to temperance over alcohol. Jussi, the young Sami boy Læstadius has rescued from destitution and abuse, becomes the preacher’s faithful disciple on long botanical treks to explore the flora and fauna. Læstadius also teaches him to read and write – and to love and fear God. When a milkmaid goes missing deep in the forest, the locals suspect a predatory bear is at large. A second girl is attacked, and the sheriff is quick to offer a reward for the bear’s capture. Using early forensics and daguerreotype, Læstadius and Jussi find clues that point to a far worse killer on the loose, even as they are unaware of the evil closing in around them…
Delighted to be joining the celebration for the release of To Cook A Bear by Mikael Niemi, an utterly fascinating and uniquely different crime novel. Using the real life figure, the Revivalist preacher, Lars Levi Læstadius as the central character, adds an authenticity and deeper level of interest to the book, and being unfamiliar with this highly intelligent, progressive and insightful man, there is a real frisson of Niemi linking the past with the present here. To try and encapsulate in a review the many themes of the philosophical, spiritual and metaphysical, and the razor sharp historical detail that Niemi so confidently and brilliantly entwines in this book won’t be easy, as this is a novel quite unlike any other that I have encountered of late.
On a very basic level, this book is a murder mystery with a small community filled with fear and suspicion as a murderer walks amongst them, preying on defenceless young women in a series of attacks driven by violent rage. As such, even with such a seemingly simple premise, Niemi constructs a chilling and compelling mystery, as the suspicion amongst the local people is attributed by turn to a possible bear attack, to a wandering miscreant, and then far more dangerously into the perpetrator being from the community itself. Reading this from a contemporary viewpoint, I was struck by how little the human race has moved on in terms of accepting peoples’ differences, as the community quickly turns on Jussi, the young Sami boy that Læstadius has taken into his tutelage. This fear of the unknown and the different runs like a vein throughout the book, as even Læstadius himself, with his Revivalist preaching and fervent followers puts him at odds with the men of influence in the town, who value wealth and gaiety over religion and abstinence. Consequently, there are many trials and pitfalls for Læstadius and Jussi, who intent on identifying the perpetrator find themselves in an increasingly perilous position.
What I was increasingly struck by was the progressiveness and intuitive thinking of Læstadius, harnessing clues and applying practical chains of thought to the residual evidence of each crime. Obviously, forensic science was very much in its infancy in this period, but Læstadius neatly assesses and applies increasingly modern methods to his dissemination of the physical evidence he uncovers, based on common sense and lateral thinking. Hence, we see the rudimentary application of the crime scene analysis, we as modern readers are familiar with in its purest form, as Læstadius inches forward with his knowledge and supposition on how to gather clues, analyse them, and catch a killer. From fingerprints to daguerreotypes, from simple pencil shavings to indentations in the landscape, Læstadius draws on his knowledge of psychology, botany, literature and branches of science and pseudo science to close in on the perpetrator.
I think it serves as a testament to the quality of Niemi’s writing and his erudite turn of phrase, and by turn the sublime translation by Deborah Bragan-Turner, that I revisited several passages throughout my reading of the book. His rendering of this harsh, but beautiful landscape, the sheer drudgery and hardship of these people’s lives, the physicality of his characters, and the more metaphysical musings of Læstadius himself on art, literature and education, held me in their thrall. On the subject of the community he is a part of, I was struck by their deep connection to the land and the way that their lives have this naturalistic interconnectedness, perhaps stronger than faith and education itself. “ You might easily form the impression that the farm-maid or the reindeer herder lacked the disposition for academic study. But even though they didn’t read books, they knew the changes in the movement of the animals at every moment in the year. They knew hundreds of reindeer marks by heart, and managed to find old pasture grounds, berry patches and fishing lakes from the high mountains to the coastline…In many matters, local people had a deeper understanding than all of Uppsala’s professors.” As much as Læstadius recognises that these people and particularly their children have the potential for a profession, education and improvement, he never loses sight of this more basic characteristic of his flock that connects them to the soil. Likewise, with his apprentice Jussi, he recognises and respects Jussi’s physical need to wander and be amongst nature, but aims to educate him as fully as possible, and their relationship seems to transcend a simple one of teacher and pupil or even adoptive father and son.
To Cook A Bear proved to be an incredibly enjoyable reading experience for me, and as someone who has an innate curiosity of the world and our place within it, I found it tremendously satisfying. Not only did it read as a compelling tale of jealousy and murder, with its nods to early forensic techniques, but it expanded out to envelop a host of larger themes based on religion, morality, art and at its heart an enduring interconnectedness with the landscape and the changing of the seasons. Mikael Niemi has produced a completely fascinating, intelligent, and beautifully written book. Highly recommended.
Lars Levi Laestadius was born in 1800 in the municipality of Jäkkvik in Swedish Lapland and died in 1861 in Pajala on the Swedish side of the border with Finland, which was a Russian Grand Duchy during the nineteenth century. Laestadius was educated as a theologian and worked as a vicar in different municipalities in Swedish Lapland. He also contributed to scientific fields such as botany and ethnography, as well as linguistics and philosophy, and participated in the French La Recherche scientific expedition to Finnmark and Spitsbergen in 1838. He is best remembered as a revival preacher and the revival movement “Laestadianism” has become a central influence in the cultural heritage of Northern Norway, as well as Northern Sweden and Finland.
(With thanks to Maclehose Press for the ARC)