Fifteen-year-old Cole Matthews is the main character of Ben Mikaelsen's novel Touching Spirit Bear. He is the protagonist of the story, but for most of the novel he is busy antagonizing anyone he can, any chance he gets.
Matthews is a troubled boy whose parents (who both have alcohol problems) are divorced and his father is abusive, prompting his bad behavior. Though his home life is not ideal and his father is impossible to please, the boy clearly makes his own bad choices which get him in serious trouble. He robs a hardware store and gets caught; it is certainly not the first time he has been in trouble, but it is the first time he has not been able to get out of it.
The boy's next crime is murder; he nearly kills another boy.
[A]fter school, Cole cornered Peter outside in the parking lot. With anger that had been brewing all day, he attacked him and started hitting him hard in the face with his bare fists. Peter was no match, and soon Cole had pounded him bloody. A dozen students stood watching. When Peter tried to escape, he tripped and fell to the ground Cole jumped on him again and started smashing his head against the sidewalk.
The only thing that keeps Matthews from having to spend much time in prison is the belief two men have in him and in a kind of healing process called Circle Justice.
Matthews is dropped off on an isolated, uninhabited island in Alaska; he must stay there alone for one year. He is given basic supplies and some help building shelter, but the rest is up to him. He lies, saying he was ready to change, just to escape being locked up; once he is on the island, he unsuccessfully tries to escape by swimming away.
The legend of the Spirit Bear says that whatever anyone does to the white bear (or any of the animals on the island) is what that person does to himself. If he chooses to, Matthews can become a better person during his time on the island. The boy has several encounters with the Spirit Bear, one of which nearly kills him. He is removed from the island so he can heal, and Matthews determines to make a change.
He goes back to the island after spending some time in prison and without the full use of his right arm. While in prison, he learned how to release his anger in less destructive ways. This time he goes to the island willingly and with a good attitude. He is sorry for what he did and tries to make it up with Peter. Things change so dramatically that he is able to make a kind of peace with Peter, the boy he nearly killed.