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The major theme of the book is that you need to overcome your past before you can move forward.
Cole learns that he cannot run away from his past. He has suffered, but that suffering is a part of him. He has to learn from his past, and how to overcome it.
Although Cole is an angry kid for most of the book, his experiences on the island as a result of Circle Justice, and especially his interactions with Edwin and Garvey, change him. Cole realizes that what he did to Peter, the boy he attacked, was wrong. He also realizes that the anger that constantly bubbles up inside him because he blames other people for what happens to him is stopping him from moving on. Slowly, Cole changes.
Before Cole goes to the island, no one believes he is ever going to be anything but a juvenile delinquent.
Peter’s lawyer had asked for the feather. “All your life you’ve lied, manipulated people, and tried to avoid consequences,” she said. “There is absolutely no reason to believe that you have truly changed inside.” (Ch. 6)
Even Cole pretty much shares this sentiment. When he first arrives, he does not expect to change either. He tries to escape, burns the cabin down, and attacks the bear. He is angry and hurt. His parents have been abusive and neglectful, and his life has been one disappointment after another, and he feels that nothing is his fault. He is incapable of taking responsibility.
After Cole is injured when he tries to attack the bear, everything changes. For the first time, he has to face himself. When he throws the bear’s fur away, it is a sign that Cole is a new person. He no longer cares if anyone believes that he really saw a Spirit Bear. Cole has a new understanding of himself, and that is all that matters. He knows he is telling the truth.
Cole becomes a changed man after this. He rehabilitates himself, and takes it upon himself to make sure that Peter is okay. He blames himself for Peter’s suicide attempts. He understands that Peter too needs to face his demons, and only one of those demons is Cole. Cole also needs to help Peter. It is part of his own healing.
“There’s still something missing. It isn’t enough to be sorry and forgive. Somehow I have to figure out a way to help Peter. Until then, I’ll never be able to carve anything in the blank space. (Ch. 24)
Helping Peter is not easy, and the two boys are never exactly friends. Yet Cole is able to show Peter, society, and himself that he has overcome his past and become a new person.
In this book, we learn how ancient traditions can help us solve modern problems. As a society, we often throw away our children as if there is no hope for them. Cole is a troubled youth, but he is troubled because of his past. Once he faced his past, he was finally given a future. The path he took to face that past was not one that we have available in our traditional juvenile justice system, however!
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