What are the conflicts in Touching Spirit Bear

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mwestwood eNotes educator| Certified Educator

All four major conflicts of literature are in Ben Mikaelsen's coming-of-age novel.

  • Man vs. Society 

 The protagonist, Cole Matthew, a juvenile delinquent has agrees to be part of a rehabilitation program called Circle of Justice practiced by Native American cultures; he does this only to keep from being imprisoned. In truth, Cole does not wish to repay Nature; he simply wants to avoid imprisonment by choosing to stay on an Alaskan island. He is filled with hatred for authority.

After Garvey departs, Cole rejoices thinking the world is made of suckers and fools and today Garvey is at the top of the heap. It is not until he is mauled by the bear and faced with death that Cole listens to Garvey who rescues him and Rosey who provides medical attention. 

  •  Man vs. Man

Cole’s family is at the root of his problems: his father beat him severely when he was young, while his mother weakly did not intervene. Consequently, he feels hatred for them both. When he is sentenced in court, he tells the lawyer and his parents, “I never want to see your ugly faces again.” As a result of his background, Cole has no personal respect for anyone. For instance, he contemplates how much he would like to harm Garvey as he is being transported to the Alaskan island. After he nearly dies, Cole begins to have a different perspective; so, too, does his mother, who apologizes to her son, “Somewhere we took a bad turn.” She visits him often in the hospital, telling Cole, “You know I love you, don’t you?” And, as a result of her testimony, Cole’s father is sentence for child abuse, and Cole’s relationship with his mother begins to heal. Also, he realizes that Garvey has meant well toward him all along.

  • Man vs. Self

Because Cole Matthews feels unloved, he thinks to himself, 

"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."

As a result, he projects this self-hatred onto others and seeks to prove that he is the stronger. It is not until he is on the island and is mauled by the spirit bear and faces death, that Cole has an existential moment in which he wants to live. After he lies helpless and watches sparrows knocked from their tree dying, Cole begins to understand how much life means. When Garvey arrives to rescue him, Cole pointedly tells him, "I am okay."

As he is treated by Rosey and Garvey, Cole displays his gratitude to others for the first time. But, when Cole says he is over his anger, Garvey replies,

“A person is never done being mad. Anger is a memory never forgotten. You can only tame it.”

So, Cole does work to tame his anger, and with the help of his mother, and his return to the island in Chapter 15, where Edwin tells Cole that he will not ever be rid of his anger; he must simply look for the good each time. This advice makes sense to Cole who looks around the island,

It seemed a bizarre dream to be standing alone on this rocky hillside in Alaska...his mind filled with thoughts so totally different from anything he’d known running around on the streets back in Minneapolis. He felt like a new and a different person.

  • Man vs. Nature

While the conflict with the spirit bear plays a major role in Cole's character development, Nature figures more as symbolic force and theme than as one presenting conflicts. Indeed, it is from Nature that Cole learns patience (the beaver), strength (the eagle), and whale (search for truth).

Of course, Cole's conflict with the bear is very instrumental in his character change. But, the bear only fights Cole when he is first aggressive as he hurls his spear at it. It is from this conflict that Cole has his existential epiphany as he realizes the value of life and its importance to him and to others. "I'm okay."