The primary conflict in Ben Mikaelsen's Touching Spirit Bear is primarily an internal one. Cole Matthews is an angry young man. He grew up in a dysfunctional family; his mother is weak and timid and his father is aggressive and cruel.
“All my parents do is drink. They hate me. Do you know what it's like waking up every morning knowing you're not good enough? There are only two things wrong with me--everything I do and everything I say. They'll never be happy until I'm dead.”
The only physical touch he ever remembers getting is being hit by his father, and once his parents divorced he was shipped from place to place in a vain effort to "fix" him. The next step for him, of course, is that he gets in trouble with the law. When one of his classmates overhears him bragging about his illegal activities, Cole beats him nearly to death. This is where his most intense internal conflict begins.
In order to avoid going to prison, which his father's money and fancy attorneys are unable to keep him from this time, Cole agrees to participate in something called Circle Justice. He will be sent to an island where he will face himself and, ideally, come to see his own faults and flaws (primarily his anger) and learn to deal with them. It is a “healing form of justice" that is used only in extreme and selective cases, and Cole is selected. He, however, intends to play this system just as he has every other system in his young life.
Cole's internal conflict is reflected in the things he does outwardly. He burns down the cabin, his only shelter, and he tries unsuccessfully to swim his way off the island. He is alone and angry, and he is not in the least interested in introspection, which is what he is supposed to be doing while he is here. The Spirit Bear visits him, something which does not always happen, and not surprisingly, Cole's immediate response is that he wants to kill it. This is the beginning of the end of Cole's true inner battle.
It is a lengthy and very painful process, but Cole eventually comes to grips with his anger. He nearly dies in the process, but he is changed by the experience. Once he recovers, he goes back to the island for even more healing, and he begins to make his amends with Paul, the boy he beat up and nearly killed.
While it would be easy to say the primary conflict of this novel is man versus nature (in the form of the Spirit Bear as well as all of the elements he must battle while he is on the island), or man versus man, since Cole beats Paul up so badly that the boy nearly dies. It is really Cole's internal battle, however, which is responsible for everything else that happens in the story.