Translated from Swedish by Deborah Bragan-Turner
First and foremost, that cover! 😍😍😍
The novel delivers on all the promises of its cover: a rich tapestry of historical fiction, set amidst the flora, fauna and forest of Northern Sweden; an unhappy bear.
You can guess its fate from the title. But probably not the reason for its demise. The poor animal is scapegoated for the death of a local milkmaid, who disappears while deep in the forest. Claw marks on a nearby tree give the sheriff all the clues he needs to name the culprit. The hunt ensues … (WARNING: this scene is not for the faint-hearted.)
Lars Læstadius, the local revivalist pastor, is not so easily convinced of the animal’s guilt. As we have previously seen him and his protégé, Jussi, on a botanical expedition, collecting and cataloguing flora and fauna, we know how trustworthy his observations are. So when a second girl is attacked, only those who swallowed the sheriff’s story and the bear meat are surprised.
The problem is this. In the interim, Læstadius has not endeared himself to the sheriff. In pointing out the discrepancies between his version of events and .the forensic evidence, he has angered the sheriff by making him look stupid.
Jussi hasn’t done himself any favours He is a foundling, raised and taught by Læstadius to be his potential successor in the church. But he is a Sami boy, and, therefore, viewed very much as second class by the locals. His infatuation with Maria is all one-way traffic. She won’t even speak to him. So in order to get his fix, a sight of his beloved, he is reduced to snooping around, gazing from afar, hiding behind bushes. That puts him in great danger, especially when the bear is no longer available for scapegoating.
Awful things happen …. made all the more heart-wrenching as most of the story is narrated by Jussi himself.
I didn’t spot all the red herrings. I knew Maria was a bad ‘un. I also spotted the key sleight of hand that ensured justice would be served. It did and still makes me smile, given that the eventual outcome was so, so satisfying!
In addition to an investigation that must be undertaken without the support of the sheriff, or the benefit of advanced technology, there is additional depth with the portraits of Lars Læstadius and his wife, Brita Kajsa. Læstadius started the revivalist movement that continues to this day in Scandinavia and the USA, and that explains much of the religious content, sermons, meditations, behaviour of the congregation, etc that is included in the novel. Not that this accounts for many pages, but – and I fully admit this is my fault for not reading blurbs – it did puzzle me. I hadn’t heard of Læstadius before. However, Mikael Niemi lives in Pajala, where Læstadius and his wife are buried in a very modest tomb. In combining an absorbing historical mystery with a nuanced and sympathetic portrait of the local “celebrities”, Niemi has produced an absorbing read.