Rob's Reviews > Touching Spirit Bear

Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen
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's review
Jul 16, 2012

really liked it
Read in July, 2012

Cole Matthews is a 15 year old bully. His father regularly beats him in drunken rages and his mother drinks to try to escape reality and never intervenes on Cole’s behalf. As a result of this, he burns with anger and has been in and out of detention centers and rehab. He beats another 9th grader, Peter Driscol, severely for ratting him out for breaking into a hardware store. His beating of Peter is so severe, that Peter is left with permanent damage. In prior incidents, Cole’s affluent father has been able to hire excellent attorneys to get him out of jams and get him another chance. The severity of this latest beating, coupled with his prior police record, have him facing real jail time. Garvey, his parole officer, is a Tlingit Indian and proposes to the authorities that Cole be allowed to be banished to a remote island in Alaska for a year rather than go to jail. This innovative brand of justice is called Native American Circle Justice.
Cole fakes sincerity, and convinces the Healing Circle that he truly wants to change and that the year of survival and banishment on the island is just what he needs. As soon as he is deposited on the island, he burns down the cabin and supplies that have been provided for him, and attempts to escape by swimming to another island. The tide works against him and he finds himself right back where he started. He sees a “Spirit Bear”, a snow white bear that is not known to live in that area. Defiant and full of hate for all things, especially those that are not afraid of him, Cole attempts to kill the bear with a spear and knife. The bear responds by mauling him severely and leaving him for dead. Days pass, and Cole barely clings to life. During this time he has an epiphany of sorts. He is able to gain a full perspective of his life, that no one really loves him or cares if he is dead or alive. He is surprised to find that he desperately wants to live. The bear returns several times. On the last visit, Cole is certain that the bear has returned to finally finish him off. Instead, the bear just stands next to him eyeing him curiously. Cole summons all his courage and reaches out to touch the bear. If he is to die, he wants to at least know what the animal that kills him feels like. The bear does not attack, but ambles off.
Garvey and an Indian elder known as Edwin, return to check on Cole, find him barely cleaning to life with multiple broken bones and deep lacerations, and take him via boat to the nearest hospital. Many surgeries and a six month hospital stay later, Cole finds himself back before the Healing Circle. Once again, he wishes to return to the island, but this time he is genuine. He feels that he is beginning to change and wishes to go back to the island and pursue real and complete change. Unwilling to believe more lies, and against the vehement protests of Peter Driscol’s lawyer, the Healing Circle finally agrees with a few stipulations. Cole will have to pay for all his supplies and building materials by selling his personal belongings. He must also build a new cabin all by himself. Garvey and Edwin may give him helpful advice about how to build the structure, but all labor must be done by Cole.
When Cole returns to the island, he seems to be a changed young man, and is determined not to squander this last chance for redemption. Over several months he works diligently on his camp, the soaking therapy introduced to him by Edwin, his schoolwork, and a totem pole he has started carving to depict the significant events of his journey of change. During several check-ins by Edwin, Cole learns that Peter is not doing well and is slipping into a deep depression and has attempted suicide. Cole realizes that his own healing will not be complete unless he can do something to help Peter. Cole proposes a radical solution, by asking for Peter to come to the island with him. Gravely suspicious but desperate for answers, Peter’s parents agree to take Peter to the island as long as Garvey stays there too.
Peter is not happy about the arrangement at all, and it takes a very long time for him to even be in the same cabin with Cole. Cole introduces Peter to all of the self-reflection healing techniques that Edwin has given him and genuinely wishes to help Peter. Peter begins to lash out at Cole physically. The old Cole would have beaten Peter, or anyone else, to a pulp, but Cole just takes it and does not fight back. This goes on for some time, resulting in both boys crying from emotional pain rather than physical. When they are emotionally spent, no tears left to cry, hugging by the side of the icy pond where Cole does his soaking therapy, the Spirit Bear appears. Peter, having doubted the existence of such a bear, cannot believe his eyes. The boys return to camp and begin work on the final carving to complete the totem. The author ends here, and leaves the reader with the impression that both boys are safely and irrevocably on the road to true spiritual healing. Cole is indeed a changed young man.
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