Study Guide

Touching Spirit Bear

by Ben Mikaelsen

Touching Spirit Bear Summary

Extended Summary

Ben Mikaelsen has authored many young adult novels and is a winner of the International Reading Association Award. He is a believer in Circle Justice; while doing research for this novel, the author had a 300-pound male Spirit Bear come as close as twenty feet from him. He and his wife live in Montana with a 700-pound bear they adopted and have raised for seventeen years. Touching Spirit Bear was published in 2001.

Part One: Touching Spirit Bear

Cole Matthews strains against his metal handcuffs as he rides in a small boat on a dark, cloudy day. The weather suits his mood, for he is about to begin a year of banishment on an island in Southeast Alaska; otherwise, he would be in a jail cell back in Minneapolis. He is fifteen years old and has been in trouble with the law for half his life. He wears a permanent smirk on his face, including when he was forced to strip and put all his clothes on inside out before leaving Ketchikan on this miserable little boat. Everyone thinks he is sorry for what he did, but they are all wrong. He is angry, especially at the people around him who shipped him from doctor to counselor to detention center to treatment center. They were all afraid, and he despises their fear. He has no intention of keeping the contract he signed in the Circle Justice meetings; he will not be staying on an island by himself for the next year.

A year ago he had not even heard of Circle Justice; he was busy breaking into a hardware store and trashing the place after robbing it. When he bragged about it at school, a freshman boy named Peter reported Cole to the authorities. In return, Cole beat him mercilessly until six students pulled him off the bloody boy. Cole was detained in a jail cell for juveniles because of this violent attack, and this time his parents and their high-priced lawyer were not able to get him released. It had always worked before, but this time he had gone too far and would probably be tried at an adult court and sentenced accordingly. His parents had just gotten a divorce, so they visited him separately. His mother is timid and weak, his father is quick-tempered and aggressive. Soon his disdain for them became too much, and they stopped coming to visit.

The only person who kept visiting was a stocky youth probation officer named Garvey. Cole resented his visits because he could not figure out the man’s motivation until one day Garvey asked if Cole would ever consider applying for Circle Justice. When Cole asked what it is, Garvey explained it is a Native American “healing form of justice.” A contract is signed, and all parties involved benefit from the arrangement, for it is not just the victim who needs to be healed. A person who commits such violence is clearly hurting as well. Cole said it seemed like a better option than prison, and Garvey clapped him on the shoulder and told him he still does not get the concept. Cole does not like to be touched; for as long as he can remember, the only physical contact he ever got was hitting. Justice should be about healing, continued Garvey, and healing is much more difficult than punishment because it requires one to take personal responsibility for one’s actions. Cole just wants to know if this will keep him out of jail. Garvey re-emphasizes it is the how, not the what, that matters, but Cole is single-minded about avoiding punishment. The probation officer agrees to start the process to apply for the program but tells the boy it starts in his heart. Garvey says the program will not work if he does not want to change. Cole puts on his most innocent act (which has worked for him countless times in the past) and declares he is ready to change. Garvey agrees to start the paperwork, and Cole sees the man as the biggest sucker he has ever met.

Now, months later, the boat contains the boy, Garvey, a native Tlinglet elder named Edwin, and boxes of supplies including schoolwork. Edwin has already built the rustic one-room shelter into which the boy and supplies will be going. Cole’s father has agreed to pay all the expenses for this Circle Justice experience, and Cole disdains him for it; he considers it another cop-out. As the skiff glides into the bay, he sees his future home and again assures himself he will not be spending the next year in this place.

The men haul the heavy boxes into the shack as Cole remains handcuffed. Edwin leaves him with a few terse directives about the plants and animals with which he will be coexisting, but Cole is arrogant and dismissive of the old man’s words. Edwin tells him about a white bear known as Spirit Bear, which has more pride, dignity, and honor than most people. He reminds the boy that whatever he does to the animals while on this island he does to himself. Edwin tells him this is where he once came to find himself when he was lost and assures Cole he can find himself here as well, if he searches.

Before he leaves, Garvey hands the boy a colorful wool blanket that he calls an "at.óow." It has been passed down through generations in his family and cannot be owned; it can only be passed on to someone whom the one who holds it trusts. Cole finds it hard to believe this man trusts him, but Garvey says he will trust if Cole promises.

After they leave, Cole is alone for the first time in three months. It took that long for him to convince those in charge that he was sincere in his contrition and desire to change. It was all lies, but he has become adept at such lying. Now he has been abandoned again, and he is as angry as he has ever been. After he turns his clothes right side out, Cole’s anger smolders and burns, and he determines he will not spend even one night in the cabin. He enters the shack and pours gasoline over its entire contents, everything the men unloaded from the skiff. His hand is steady with rage as he lights a match. It remains steady as he throws it into the gasoline-drenched building and then watches it go up in flames.

As he watches, he remembers a time when Garvey came to his cell with a bag full of groceries, items like eggs, butter, baking soda, and molasses. Cole had been blaming his bad behavior on his drunken father who hit him, his mother who also drank to overlook what her husband was doing to her son, and both of them for not supporting him in his activities. Garvey told him to eat some of each of the items he brought; Cole, not wanting anyone to think he was afraid, took big bites of each. When Garvey asked him how they tasted, the boy told him they were terrible. Garvey then took out a delicious molasses cake he had baked earlier and had the boy taste it. When Cole told him it was good, Garvey asked him which of the ingredients he should have left out. Cole got the point but still had nothing but anger for those around him. After Garvey left, Cole threw the ingredients all over his cell in a frenzy.

Now, watching the fire, Cole begins to laugh hysterically, almost maniacally; he is out of control. The laughter turns to tears as he feels banished and abandoned. As the fire dies down, so does his laughter. When Cole spots the at.óow lying untouched on the ground, he casts it into the smoldering fire. He then heads for the water and strips down to his underwear. No one but his father is aware of how strong a swimmer he is—no one but his father, who wanted him to swim because that was what he did in high school. Each time his father watched him swim, though, he did nothing but belittle and criticize his son. The boat left heading west; Cole plans to swim east, stopping at islands along the way to rest, eat, and sleep.

As he starts to swim the mile or so to the next island in the frigid Alaskan water, Cole thinks back to one of the Circle meetings that got him to this place. His parents and lawyer had been there, as had members of the community, the judge, Garvey, and Peter and his family. He had told them exactly what he knew they wanted to hear, and it had worked. Peter was not whole, though, which caused Cole a moment of regret—until he remembered it was Peter’s own fault for speaking when he should not have done so.

Swimming becomes more difficult, and Cole is struggling for breath. He finally looks ahead to see how far he has to go and is stunned to discover he has made no progress at all. The incoming tide is causing him to virtually swim in place. With great effort, he finally manages to crawl his way back to shore, his head aching and his body shivering. He remembers something about a fire and crawls his way to the smell of ashes, where he collapses for the night.

In the morning he wakes up and finds himself bruised and bloodied, nearly naked, laying in the middle of the burnt-out cabin. Suddenly he senses a presence behind him; when he turns he sees a huge, white bear. He wonders if this is a Spirit Bear and then grabs for the charred hunting knife he sees among the ashes. The bear leaves, and Cole, in his anger, satisfies himself that he will kill it the next time he sees it. He examines the charred mess in front of him and has no regrets about his rash action. He sees the at.óow lying on the ground, away from the fire. He is puzzled because he is certain he threw it directly into the flames, but he puts the blanket around his shoulders and retrieves his damp clothing from the edge of the water.

He remembers more about the Circle meeting, the one in which most members of the community wanted him to be put in jail. His father’s lawyer said he should be placed in his parents’ custody because boys will be boys. Peter said someone should smash Cole’s head into the cement so he can see how it feels. An eruption between Cole and his father revealed the ugly truth about the drunken beatings, and his mother did not speak to defend her son. Garvey is wise enough to know that Cole has reasons for his anger but is trying to play the system and get an easy path out of jail. When Garvey brought up the idea of the Tlinglet tradition of a vision quest to allow a person to face his own demons and do some serious introspection, the Circle came alive. Garvey was not sure it would work, but he knew jail would do nothing but make Cole more angry and bitter. At least on the island the boy will have to face reality because he cannot manipulate a storm, lie to his hungry belly, or cheat the cold.

As Cole swats away mosquitoes, he observes the outgoing tide and calculates when he can make his next escape from the island. He plans to leave tomorrow afternoon. He sees a wisp of smoke and manages to salvage some ashes, which he coaxes into a small fire. The smoke helps ward off the mosquitoes, and he gathers enough wood to maintain the blaze for the night. His mind seems foggy, but he struggles to clear it so he can think and plan. Suddenly he looks up and sees the Spirit Bear standing less than a hundred yards away, near the shoreline. Immediately he yells at it and grabs for the damaged knife, threatening to kill it. The creature does not move, but Cole turns his back on it in an attempt to find a sapling he can cut into a spear. When he turns back around, the bear is gone.

He sleeps fitfully that night, cocooned in the heavy native blanket, hearing sounds of life all around him and feeling empty inside. At dawn it rains; after the showers, Cole rebuilds his fire and begins searching for something with which to fill his grumbling stomach. He chases some seagulls away from a large fish; he cooks what is left and gorges himself on the chunks of charred flesh. The rain comes again. Cole huddles in the at.óow and tries to keep the fire burning. Because it is overcast, Cole is unable to tell what time it is.

Cole looks toward the water to check on the tide and his possibility of escape, and he sees the white bear again. He grabs his knife and spear and moves toward the bear. The animal is unmoving, despite the advancing boy who is shouting at it. Cole interprets his lack of movement as fear and moves aggressively toward the creature. When he is ten feet away from the bear, Cole throws his spear. The bear swats it away and heads for the boy. The attack is vicious, resulting in broken bones and clawed skin and blood everywhere. Cole tries to scream out “No more!” but all he hears are grunts. Finally the bear pushes the boy to the ground and walks away.

Eventually Cole hears the clamoring of gulls nearby and sees them fighting over bits of meat. As he examines his torn chest, he realizes they are gorging on flesh torn from his body. When they finish there, the birds move closer to the water for their next bit of food. Cole smirks in disdain for the creatures that treat his flesh as they would that of any other animal. He is equally disdainful of a bear too stupid to run when attacked. It is just his luck to end up on an island full of stupid animals, he thinks. When he tries to move, he finds he cannot. His breathing is labored because of his broken ribs, and he looks at his mangled, useless right arm and hand. One of the bones is visible, and his hand is not only swelling with hundreds of thistles but is facing the wrong way. His leg is limp and lifeless from the bear’s bite and from being tossed around by the creature. In his hand is a chunk of white fur; he stuffs it into his pocket as a souvenir of his victory over the dumb creature. He sees blood on his knife; it looks the same as the blood near Peter’s head when he beat the boy. Serves both of them right, he thinks.

Cole cannot move, and he curses his helplessness and wishes for a jail cell. There he would have had some control; here, he is powerless. There is no one to blame and no one to control. He squashes a caterpillar inching toward him just to feel like he can control something, but the tears come nevertheless. He wonders if this is how he is going to die, “puked up on a remote forgotten shore and left to die.” The rain continues, and Cole is cold and miserable. He watches a sparrow fly to a nest in the tree above him; soon it leaves and returns with bits of food in its beak to feed the hungry babies in the nest. If he were whole, Cole would knock the nest out of the tree; the stupid birds do not deserve to be sheltered, protected, and cared for by a parent. He was not and thinks they should not be more fortunate than he. None of his life is his fault, and his anger and bitterness about this keeps his mind focused though his body is still freezing and wracked with pain.

Cole finally drifts into an unconscious state and dreams that he is sleeping under the warm at.óow. He wakes up only when he hears the sharp cracks of thunder around him. He raises his head enough to look around; in a flash of lightning, he sees the white bear standing motionless only fifty feet away. Suddenly he hears a horrendous crack, feels a tremendous crash, and smells something acrid and burning. He painfully curls into a fetal position and cries out “No more!” before losing consciousness once more. When he wakes at dawn, he sees that the gigantic spruce tree that had absorbed his attention just hours before has fallen mere feet from his head, felled by lightning during the storm. It takes him several moments to focus. He is on the edge of living or dying, and he must decide which direction he will go. Then he remembers the nest of baby sparrows that had been in the tree, and he is concerned about what happened to them.

He still cannot move, and his helplessness settles in on him. The mosquitoes and the horseflies are attacking him and he cannot defend himself against them. He wants to be angry and hate someone, but that takes energy he does not have. Besides, he has no one to blame. His gaze settles again on the blackened tree, and something about it seems important. Then he remembers the nest and looks again to see if he can find it. He finally spies the four dead baby sparrows, struggling to make it back to their nest even as they were dying. He wishes he had someplace safe to call home. For him, home had always been a place from which he wanted to run. One gray sparrow is flitting around the tree, obviously looking for her babies. Cole is saddened by the senseless deaths of these innocent birds and by the fact that they have someone who cares about them, unlike him.

After some contemplation, Cole decides he wants to live. In choosing life, he understands that this choice is real power rather than the “fake power of making people afraid.” He realizes all the people he hated are now home and safe and warm; his bitterness has hurt no one but himself. Now that he has decided to live, he must find a way to sustain his energy. Cole sees himself now as that young, helpless bird, pleading for help and having no power or control over anything. He eats grass, then worms and other crawling insects on the move because of the rain; he opens his mouth to catch some rain in his parched and bloodied mouth. Again he falls asleep as the mosquitoes cover his useless and exposed arm; he wakes to a tickling sensation and sees a mouse inspecting his bloody wounds. He determines to grab it, and he does. The mouse puts up a fight as Cole chews it to death, and he is exhausted by the effort. Later he eats the chunks of fish he had vomited up earlier; he knows he has to fight if he wants to live. It is still raining, and Cole is able to smear some mud over his body to discourage the mosquitoes. He is also able to drink a few drops of muddy water to slake his raging thirst.

A crackling noise cases him to look around, and again Cole sees the white bear. It is now only twenty feet away. It has stopped midstride, and Cole knows this is likely to be the moment of his death. He manages to spit at the bear (and the world) and waits for the bear to finish what he began. The bear approaches. It sniffs the spot where Cole’s spittle landed, licks it up, then saunters away. Cole is relieved but cries because he is alone and insignificant and no one cares about him.

After fitful dreams, Cole wakes to find he is still in tremendous pain but the storm has passed. A pungent animal smell alerts him to a presence; he opens his eyes to see the white bear hovering directly above him, watching him. In one last act of defiance, Cole prepares to spit at the bear, but he cannot do it. Instead, he tentatively reaches out to the animal, wanting at least to touch the fur of the beast that is going to kill him. The bear remains motionless; it watches the boy. Cole feels his heartbeat, his warmth. This is an animal Cole has hated and tried to kill, but the bear displays trust in the boy and does not move until Cole returns his hand to the ground. Then he nods his head slowly, twice, before walking away. Cole watches him as he walks to the water and then swims until he is nothing but a stain on the horizon.

Immediately the island comes to life, and Cole feels alive. He looks around and realizes things are beautiful. He feels alive in ways he never imagined possible. He wonders why he spent his life ignoring the beauty around him, and he wonders how much beauty he destroyed with his bitterness and anger. Now, though, his energy is gone; it takes a lot of strength to hang on to life, and his is gone.

He hears a buzzing sound and feels as if the seagulls are pulling at him with their giant beaks and trying to lift him. He feels like he is being bumped along the rocks toward the water, and he hears “garbled gibberish” as his clothes are pulled off him. Soon he feels warm, and a warm liquid seems to be pouring into his mouth. He thinks it must be muddy rainwater or even his own blood, and he is drifting over the edge from life to death. Then he hears Garvey and Edwin, and his pain continues rather than subsides. He sees the brown blanket and is panicked at the thought of losing the at.óow. As he is transported in the skiff, Cole’s pain is excruciating but Garvey holds him tightly. Once they land, the torture continues until Cole passes into delirium.

When he wakes, he is in a warm bed and his two rescuers are examining him. They are unaware of the cause of his injuries until Rosy, a Tlinglet woman acting as nurse, shows them the gashes on his chest and tells them it was a bear attack. Cole nods and says he is okay, but Garvey says he is not okay. Cole insists he is okay. The medvac plane cannot take him until tomorrow, so they all do what they can for him in the hotel room for tonight. Garvey covers him with another blanket and shows him the at.óow they brought from the island. Cole wants to keep it near him but it is wet. Rosy starts an IV to rehydrate him and gives him something for the pain. Garvey spoons warm soup through Cole’s battered lips and apologizes for getting him into this situation. Cole, barely able to speak, says it is his own fault. Edwin watches everything motionlessly from his position along one wall of the room. Once the pain medication has taken effect, Rosy cleans what wounds she can and explains that the boy has a broken arm, leg, pelvis, and ribs in addition to his hypothermia and dehydration. She is amazed he is still alive.

After a nightmare, Cole wakes up and is able to talk to Rosy and Garvey. He asks why they are willing to help him. Rosy says she finds helping others makes the world a better place. Garvey says he sees a lot of himself in Cole. When he was younger, he spent five years in jail for some awful things, things he cannot fix or change. No one cared enough to help him then, but he understands the scars prison can leave and does not want that for Cole.

As the plane arrives the next day, Cole finds himself alone for a moment with Edwin and Garvey. Edwin asks what happened on the island. Cole tells him everything from the beginning. When he is finished, Edwin tells him he and others have hunted all over these islands and there is no Spirit Bear for hundreds of miles. Cole tells...

(The entire section is 8914 words.)