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the Complete Review
the complete review - fiction

To Cook a Bear

Mikael Niemi

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To purchase To Cook a Bear

Title: To Cook a Bear
Author: Mikael Niemi
Genre: Novel
Written: 2017 (Eng. 2020)
Length: 426 pages
Original in: Swedish
Availability: To Cook a Bear - US
To Cook a Bear - UK
To Cook a Bear - Canada
Wie man einen Bären kocht - Deutschland
Cucinare un orso - Italia
Cocinar un oso - España
  • Swedish title: Koka Björn
  • Translated by Deborah Bragan-Turner
  • With an Afterword by the author

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Our Assessment:

B : vivid slice-of-the-times/place

See our review for fuller assessment.

Review Summaries
Source Rating Date Reviewer
Svenska Dagbaldet . 9/10/2017 Jenny Aschenbrenner
Swedish Book Review . (2018:1) Andy Turner
Wall St. Journal . 8/1/2021 Tom Nolan

  From the Reviews:
  • "Niemi's narrative technique is beguiling. (...) More than historical crime fiction, Koka Björn is a literary novel with crossover points. Niemi's characterisations are vivid, sharp and credible: these people inhabit your mind long after you have finished the book." - Andy Turner, Swedish Book Review

  • "To Cook a Bear, translated from the Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner, makes readers privy to the inner thoughts of the remarkable Laestadius (.....) Intriguing also are the perceptions of Jussi, who savors the natural world in a sensuous manner bordering on synesthesia and whose own altruistic convictions, learned from his adoptive father, he holds as Gospel." - Tom Nolan, Wall Street Journal

Please note that these ratings solely represent the complete review's biased interpretation and subjective opinion of the actual reviews and do not claim to accurately reflect or represent the views of the reviewers. Similarly the illustrative quotes chosen here are merely those the complete review subjectively believes represent the tenor and judgment of the review as a whole. We acknowledge (and remind and warn you) that they may, in fact, be entirely unrepresentative of the actual reviews by any other measure.

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The complete review's Review:

       To Cook a Bear is set in the mid-nineteenth century; the first three of the four parts of the novel are basically narrated by a now about twenty-year-old Sami youth who ran away from his abusive mother when he was a very young child and was taken in by a pastor and baptized Johan Sieppinen -- but called Jussi -- when he was about ten; the final part is largely narrated by that pastor -- the historical figure of Lars Levi Læstadius (1800-1861). Most of the action takes place in the very northern Swedish town of Kengis, where the pastor lives, and nearby Pajala (author Niemi's hometown); Læstadius is famous for the religious revival movement he led, which included trying keep his followers from alcohol, which had ravaged much of the local and very poor community -- something that earned him the enmity of the many who profited from the sale and widespread consumption of alcohol.
       Læstadius' interests extend considerably beyond the religious and the welfare of the locals; in particular, he is interested in botany, collecting and identifying plants. He is also very observant -- and, when a local girl is found killed, he notices and notes things that the local Sherriff Brahe and his Constable Michelsson show little interest in, happy enough to quickly blame the girl's death on a bear. Jussi follows the pastor on many of his rounds and so also when Læstadius is called on to help try to find the missing girl and then when, in the course of their investigations, they find and later examine her corpse -- with Læstadius reminding him yet again of how such (and any) scenes and circumstances are to be approached:

     "Proceed only on the basis of what you can see," the master said, pinching his lower lip with his thumb and index finger. "Stick to the facts. What do we have before us ?"
       Yes, there's something of a Sherlock Holmes and Watson dynamic here, down to Jussi taking notes for the pastor (and, in this larger account, describing their investigations). Læstadius is an authority-figure in the community, and while Sherriff Brahe is always also called in when there is a death of this sort, the pastor is often first on the scene, and thus also generally able to examine the evidence before it's been mishandled. The Sherriff resents what he sees as the pastor's interference with his job, but, given the man's position, can't entirely exclude him. He's not in the least receptive to anything the pastor points out, either: the hard- and constant-drinking Sherriff is generally satisfied with the easiest answers to any situation he faces and can't be bothered with what might be actual evidence -- hair- and plant traces, footprints, or unusual smells for example -- while Læstadius studies and collects what he can. The amateur sleuth is much more professional than the actual professional -- and Holmes-like in the details he roots out and the connections he makes; he's cutting-edge, too, at one point late in the story collecting fingerprints -- an almost unheard of concept at the time.
       Examining the body of the dead girl, Læstadius concludes that it is obvious: "Somebody wanted us to believe it was a killer bear" that attacked and killed her. The authorities, in the form of Sherriff Brahe, are indeed happy enough to let themselves be deceived by appearances -- a beast easier to blame and hunt down than a man, after all. When a second girl, Jolina, is attacked, after a dance, matters get more complicated; while there is not necessarily a connection to the first assault, it's now clear a human evil-doer is out there. And, typically, Læstadius argues: "We have to try to think like the attacker, Get inside his head".
       Jolina survives, but is unwilling and unable to say much about what happened to her. Her attacker was masked, and so even more difficult to identify -- but she was also able to injure him, leaving him with an identifying mark that might help in catching him.
       There are more suspicious deaths -- with Læstadius certain that someone was involved in them, despite appearances suggesting that the victims died alone (including, in one case, in what amounts to a locked-room mystery). Sherriff Brahe is willing to accept the deaths for what they appear to be, but of course he's wrong -- meaning also that a vicious killer remains on the loose.
       The story is not merely about the investigations into the deaths. Jussi describes daily life in the area, and what else he does, and occasionally offers glimpses into his past -- his unbearable home and the beloved sister he left behind. He has a passionate crush on a local girl, Maria, but is awkward in his limited advances; even long after he has been welcomed into the pastor's household he hasn't shed his tendency to make himself as small and unnoticeable as possible. The pastor has taught him to write and read, but also encourages him to learn to speak -- to express himself to and in front of others --, but it remains a struggle.
       To Cook a Bear is also very much a novel showing, more generally, life in this northern part of Sweden at the times, from the power dynamics of rich and poor to the different cultures and languages that intersected here to the religious agitation of the time -- with the novel concluding with the Sami-led Kautokeino rebellion of 1852. Farming life, in its various (and invariably difficult) forms, is vividly presented -- with one of Læstadius' experiments involving the first planting of a crop so novel he isn't even quite sure how to prepare it for eating after harvesting it, the potato. Læstadius, both in his role as controversial pastor and as a progressive figure embracing scientific advances, is very much a central figure too, and much of his activity is described; in many ways he is, for much of the novel, more central to the action than Jussi, who tries to remain more on-looker.
       Among the others significant figures is an outsider, the talented artist Nils Gustaf -- who also introduces the pastor to yet another technological novelty, the first daguerreotypes seen in the region. He is also unattached, and certainly likes the ladies, and obviously Læstadius can't help but wonder whether or not he might not be involved in the crimes against the local young women .....
       Eventually, even the Sherriff changes his tune: a trap is laid and someone falls right in, and all the suspicious deaths are suddenly easily -- if not necessarily correctly -- pinned on one person. Niemi does then see that justice, of sorts, is served, but it's a cruel, cruel course leading there. There are some clever little twists in the final resolution, but Niemi also strays far from the neat Holmesian tying up of everything: the world he depicts is full of the all-too-human, and if justice is served it is not in an elegant, orderly, and official way, but rather as best it can be in the very harsh conditions of those times and that place.
       Them mystery and detective part of the novel are reasonably interesting but can feel a bit forced, the pastor's Holmes-like abilities a bit too obviously .... Holmes-like (so also in the presentation of these). More interesting and successful is the broader picture, of life in such a place and in those times -- not merely, or so much, the pastor's efforts at leading his flock, away from alcohol and to something better (though the strains caused by his revivalist ambitions, even just at the church services, are particularly interesting), but simply dealing with nature and with each other in a small, poor community. Jussi's terrible childhood, and his continuing awkwardness in dealing with others, can be painful to follow, but it mostly feels real. If there is a weakness to the local portrayals, it is in that of the local girls and women: if the pastor's wife is a strong (if still very much background) figure (at times almost implausibly so), the girls remain largely simply victims. (Admittedly, this is also due in no small part to the narrative perspective -- largely Jussi's, who generally isn't very good around women --, nevertheless, both Jolina and Maria prove largely unable to act (or express themselves) freely -- even as and when all concerned would benefit if they did.)
       To Cook a Bear doesn't shy away from describing the harsh conditions and some of the awful violence that happens -- there's truly raw detail here, which can be hard to stomach. But it convinces as true-to(-that)-life, making for a powerful portrait of place, time, and circumstances, with a decent mystery-story of sorts to keep the story moving along -- even as the personal stories and mysteries, including Jussi's occasional absenting himself from the pastor's home for extended periods of time as well as Læstadius' professional activities, are, mostly, more intriguing. If the mystery/investigation part of the novel feels a bit simple and forced, at least Niemi fits it well into the whole context, thankfully avoiding the story simply becoming an imitation-Holmes 'Pastor P.I.' case. It makes for a reasonably successful and certainly very colorful novel -- best as period-piece.

- M.A.Orthofer, 24 January 2021

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To Cook a Bear: Reviews: Other books of interest under review:

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About the Author:

       Swedish author Mikael Niemi was born in 1959.

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© 2021 the complete review

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