Touching Spirit Bear Summary
Touching Spirit Bear is a novel by Ben Mikaelsen in which Cole Matthews must fend for himself on an island for one year.
- As penance for assaulting a boy named Peter, Cole Matthews is sent to an island, where he must survive on his own for one year.
- Cole struggles to survive. He begins seeing a large white bear, called Spirit Bear. He provokes the bear, and it attacks him, leaving him gravely injured.
- Cole is rescued, but his wounds leave him permanently disabled.
- Cole returns to the island, accompanied by Peter. Cole and Peter reconcile, and Cole works to overcome his anger issues.
Last Updated on May 5, 2015, by eNotes Editorial. Word Count: 8914
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 elder he is telling the truth and reaches for his pocket to pull out the evidence, but then he simply states that he is telling the truth and that should be enough. Later he reaches surreptitiously into his pocket and retrieves the pure white hair that proves his story about the bear. He releases it into the water, where it is borne away, and Cole determines his words will now always be truthful. As he is borne away, Cole understands what Edwin told him, that anger is a memory never forgotten. He also understands his encounter with the Spirit Bear is a memory that will ever be engraved upon his heart and memory.
Part Two: Return to Spirit Bear
Six months later, Cole painfully walks out of the hospital. He no longer has full use of his right arm, and he is sore and limping. His mother is with him, as is Garvey. When the officers attempt to handcuff the boy, Garvey fights to avoid it and wins. Cole’s father is not here, nor did he ever visit his son. Five months ago, Garvey was clear with Cole’s mother that her silence was to blame for at least some of this damage. She reluctantly filed papers against her former husband and said she would testify against him. After he was charged with child abuse, Mr. Matthews’s lawyer immediately got him released. Cole’s mother has been at the hospital every day, wringing her hands and asking her son if he knows she loves him. Those were awkward moments, and Cole did not know what to think about her love. Cole is being returned to the detention facility after a warning from his doctor that he must work his body to fight the crippling effects of the scars he now has. Garvey tells him the rest of his healing will be much more difficult than the physical, and his mother reaches awkwardly for him and hugs him.
As he settles into his cell, Cole is able to revisit the island and remember the gentleness of the Spirit Bear. The next day Garvey visits him and explains that Cole will be meeting with the Justice Circle; he will undoubtedly be returned to the courts and have to serve some jail time. Cole regrets his lost opportunity on the island and says he will return to the island someday. He asks Garvey if he believes him about the bear. Garvey says he was clearly mauled by something that wanted to hurt him. Cole says the bear was only trying to protect himself from the boy’s attacks. He knows when someone wants to hurt him; he had seen it often in his father’s eyes as he beat him. The probation officer says he believes Cole believes he saw a Spirit Bear. His mother comes to visit every day, and she tells Cole she has stopped drinking. She explains that his father never knew anything but being beaten by his father, and she kept thinking things might get better and drank to avoid having to face the reality. Now she hopes they might one day go away and start a new life together.
His father does not appear for the Justice Circle meeting, nor do Peter and his family, though their lawyer is in attendance. After a brief explanation of the events that have happened in the past six months, the members each express their belief that Cole should be returned to the traditional justice system. Cole is discouraged, for they cannot know about the bear or the birds and the changes they have wrought in him. The door suddenly opens and in walks Edwin, who reverently asks to join the Circle. Once Edwin is seated, it is Cole’s turn to speak and explain why his case should not be prosecuted in the court system. He makes a simple statement, telling them he lied to them to avoid jail and understands they must do what makes the most sense to them now. He is resigned to his fate, and the Circle is unmoved by his candor. The only people to speak on his behalf are his mother and Garvey, and their commentary is outweighed by the vehemence of Peter’s lawyer, who insists the boy must pay for what he did to Peter. The last one to speak is Edwin, who explains that though people cannot change overnight, they can change direction. He thinks Cole has changed the direction of his life and is learning to control his anger, among other things. He would only allow the boy back on the island if he built his own cabin and paid for his supplies by selling things he values. As for the story about the Spirit Bear, Edwin says there were fishermen, men he trusts, who saw a white bear near the islands six months ago. He does not, however, go as far as saying he believes Cole encountered a Spirit Bear. Cole is adamant in his claim.
In the following weeks, Cole spends his time waiting and exercising his body. He discovers his anger can be assuaged by sweating and working, though his right arm is still virtually useless. The Circle meets several times without him; Edwin stays in town to attend the meetings and visits Cole occasionally, asking pointed questions and grunting at the responses. Cole’s lawyer unexpectedly stops by to tell Cole he will no longer be representing him because his father has refused to pay the legal fees. A public defender will be appointed. A few days later, Edwin and Garvey visit Cole together, and they grill the boy about how he has changed and what happened on the island. Cole is frustrated by his inability to explain what happened and tells them they should just quit wasting their time on him. They finally tell him they have taken a huge risk: they have convinced the Circle to release him to their custody. He will be going back to the island.
A month later, the three of them are arriving at the island again. This time it is spring instead of fall, Cole is not in handcuffs, and the two men are joking around a bit. The supplies in the boat, as well as the building supplies that had been transported to the island earlier, have been paid for by the sale of all his sports equipment. Edwin and Garvey will stay for a few days, until the boy completes his shelter; however, Cole will do all the work. They leave him alone for the day with the empty skiff. He knows he would already have made his escape if he had not changed, but there is no temptation to leave this time. He later finds out they took the sparkplug; they believe in his potential, but he has not yet earned their trust.
They roast hot dogs for dinner, and the men encourage their charge to make the most of this second chance, discover himself, and celebrate being alive. That night Cole is restless and allows anger and bitterness to stir up inside him again. Edwin wakes him before sunrise and takes him to a place he found calming during his time on the island. As they sit in a soaking pool, the elder tells Cole that anger never really goes away; however, choosing to focus on it is a choice. He warns the boy that winter will be the most difficult, for he will not want to leave his warm cabin; his anger will grow and fester in such an environment, so he must get out. This place by the stream will be a good place to come.
That morning Edwin and Garvey show Cole how to make an airtight shelter to fend off the bitter winter winds and keep the mice away. They encourage him to eat more than cereal for breakfast and to wear gloves, but he good-naturedly ignores their advice—until noon when he is starving and has blisters on his hands. His right arm is virtually useless, but he is getting better and stronger with his left hand. After dinner that night they dance. Edwin says they saw whales breaching that morning, so they will do the dance of the whales. Each of them moves as an expression of what they learned from the whales. Edwin learned whales are graceful and gentle; Garvey learned whales are smart and powerful. Cole feels ridiculous and self-conscious, but soon he is a whale, migrating to the fire. As he dances, he learns that whales migrate but have no home. He is like a whale. When Cole asks when they will do the dance of anger, Edwin tells him he will do that dance alone and only when he is ready.
There are no nightmares this night, but Edwin wakes the boy up early again to go to the pond. Once again they strip and wade through the frigid water to soak as the sun rises, and they make a choice about whether to be angry this day. When they leave, Edwin picks up a large, smooth rock and tells Cole to imagine it is his ancestors, the people who helped shape him into who he is today and who may still have things to teach him. Cole carries the rock begrudgingly up the hill; Edwin tells him he has carried that rock up this hill many times. Cole is confused about how the rock gets back to the bottom of the hill until Edwin tells him to roll it down, releasing his anger as he does so. Cole is perturbed that both men keep telling him he must find his own way but seem just as adamant about following their patterns. Edwin says he and Garvey want some redemption for their own pasts and may achieve it through him.
When they arrive back at camp they see a wolf, and Edwin says they will do the wolf dance tonight. Cole is silent most of the day, though he works hard. When things get frustrating he looks to the men for help but gets none. Instead, he develops an attitude. At the end of the night he prepares to go to bed without fixing any of them dinner, and the adults say they will take him back to Minneapolis in the morning. Cole stammers his apologies and insists he has changed, but his words are empty for the men who need to see that his attitude has, indeed, changed. They go to bed, and Cole asks about the wolf dance. He can do it himself, alone, they say—since that is the way he does everything else in his life. Soon Cole is thinking about the wolf and begins crouching and circling the fire. He understands what it must be like to be separated from the pack and vulnerable to attack. When he crawls into bed, Garvey asks him what he learned. Cole says he needs the help of others, just as a wolf needs the help of a pack. Edwin tells him to go to the pool for a soak and roll his rock alone in the morning and tell him what he learns.
Cole is afraid he will oversleep and feels restless. He finally gets up and prepares for the ritual Edwin has shown him. He hesitates, thinking perhaps he can skip the doing and simply tell them what they want to hear, but he does not want to take that risk. His soak is effective in calming his mind to face the day ahead; his climb with the rock is deliberate and thoughtful, and he rolls the stone back down the hill along with his anger. As he prepares to head back to camp, he sees a large white shape disappearing into the trees below him. Edwin asks what he learned that morning, and Cole tells him that no person is bad: people just act badly because they are afraid. Even his father acts badly out of his own fears.
Cole finishes the cabin that day, and it is built well. He prepares a feast that night, and when Edwin asks what dance they should do, Cole suggests they do the Spirit Bear dance. They ask the boy if he saw the bear this morning, and he tells the truth. When they ask if he is afraid to be left alone here with the bear, he answers truthfully: he is not afraid of the bear, but he is afraid of being alone. Edwin says he was so lonely it hurt when he first came here, but soon he felt peaceful inside. Cole must start the dance since he saw the bear, and he dances the series of events that happened with the bear the first time he was on the island. The men understand his dance.
In the morning Cole prepares for his soak and climb; Edwin and Garvey ask if they can join him, and he is happy to have their company. When it is time, Cole leaves the water and completes the climb and rock ritual. The men join him, and back at the cabin Edwin shows Cole how to properly install the stovepipe for his cooking stove. Then it is time for the men to leave and for the boy to begin his exile. Edwin presents him with a gift, a large hunting knife. He encourages the boy to carve, for when he discovers what is inside the wood he will discover what is inside himself. He promises to return in a few days to check on him, then he and Garvey leave. By the time Edwin returns, Cole has settled into a routine and created some furnishings for his new home. He promises to carve something special.
After the skiff disappears, Cole walks along the shore and discovers a long log; he is inspired to carve a totem like the one on the at.óow. He manages to haul the log to his camp and has the frightening thought that this log would also make a good canoe. He sleeps restlessly that night and decides to skip his morning ritual. His day is filled with anger and frustration, and he even shapes one end of the log into the point of a canoe. When he realizes what has happened, that for the first day on the island he is experiencing the old anger and the old thoughts, he takes the ax and slices into the middle of the log. Once it is no longer usable as a canoe, he begins carving the eagle he saw earlier that day. After dinner, he does the dance of the eagle, feeling as if he can see things from a new perspective, like the eagle. Even his hip and arm are not so stiff after the dance, and he sleeps hard, dreaming of soaring high.
When Edwin returns with more supplies, he is surprised at the totem log. He asks the boy about making a canoe, and Cole is truthful with the elder. Cole submits his homework and asks if there is any mail. He is not allowed that kind of contact, but Cole does learn that his mother calls Garvey nearly every day to check on her son. Cole wonders why he has not seen the Spirit Bear; Edwin suggests perhaps after the attack Cole became invisible but would not explain what that means. Edwin tells him to continue carving whatever he wants, for a totem is a personal story. Cole finishes the eagle and starts to carve a wolf. He also tries to make himself invisible by changing his clothes and masking his scent with nature’s smells. It does not seem to be working. He still attempts to dance the dance of anger, but it will not come to him. He has left a large space at the bottom of the totem for his anger carving, but he cannot finish it.
One night Cole wakes up and knows how to be invisible. It is simply a matter of clearing his mind and entering an almost trance-like state so the animals cannot sense him. He wonders what things people miss because they are not calm enough or empty enough to experience them. In the morning Cole determines to become invisible—not to the bear but to himself. He stands in the mist and loses himself in the natural patterns he sees around him. When he finally opens his eyes as if coming out of a deep sleep, he sees the white Spirit Bear. It is only for a moment, but the boy now knows he is ready to perform the dance of anger.
He prepares a celebratory dinner and enjoys it. After cleaning up, he stokes the fire and waits for his feelings to come alive. As the flames flare, he emits a loud scream and begins to dance. He approaches everything around him as an adversary, pulling and hitting and fighting. Eventually he even kicks the fire, and the embers scatter all over his campground. He is crying and expressing his sorrow for what he did to Peter; he throws a representative ancestor rock into the ocean and cries out his sorrow to them. Finally, after a very long time of dancing his anger, parts of him sore and swollen and bleeding, and he is able to say what he has never said before: “I forgive you.” His energy is spent and he collapses on the ground. From the trees a pair of large eyes is reflected in the glowing embers, patiently watching.
The next morning Cole attempts to carve something to represent his anger dance, but he has no idea how to demonstrate what he has learned and how he has changed. He knows anger is a choice, and he no longer chooses it; he leaves the totem uncarved. On Edwin’s next visit, Cole tells him he danced the dance of anger. He has learned to forgive, but until he finds a way to help Peter heal, he will not be able to carve his totem symbol. Edwin is pleased by what the boy tells him and admits that is why he and Garvey are helping Cole. They were each unable to help those they hurt, so they are helping him.
As winter approaches, Edwin’s visits become less frequent and his conversation more sparing. Cole is lonely now that the Spirit Bear, which he had spotted quite regularly before winter, has apparently hibernated for the season. He is cold and miserable, he can no longer carve in the cold, and eventually he even has to give up going for his morning cleansing ritual. His days are filled with chopping into firewood the abundant piles of wood he prepared, doing his schoolwork, and thinking. The thinking sometimes causes his anger to flare up again. Edwin told him Peter is growing more bitter and depressed, and Cole is still unsure how to help him. He wonders if he will still be able to sense the Spirit Bear when he returns to his life in Minneapolis. Christmas is a lonely day for Cole, but Edwin tells him he has more than many and not to wallow in self-pity. Cole’s mother writes him every few days even though she knows her son cannot have the letters. Peter is now so depressed he rarely gets out of bed. Months pass, and still there is no carving at the bottom of the totem.
On his next visit with supplies, Edwin tells Cole that Garvey called to say Peter tried to commit suicide. Cole says he is sorry, but they both know that is not much help to Peter now. As the man is leaving, Cole screams out that he knows how to help Peter, but the skiff keeps moving. He hollers that Edwin is not listening. That night Cole falls asleep thinking about Peter, and Peter is the first thing on the boy’s mind in the morning. It is still cold, but Cole feels the need to go back to his soak and rock ritual. As he is doing so, he hears a whirring and sees Edwin and the skiff approaching the island. Edwin tells him that Peter has attempted suicide again, and now he is listening to what Cole wanted to tell him. Cole’s idea is for Peter to come to the island and face his fears—including Cole. Peter must realize that Cole has changed and he can have something to look forward to in his life. Edwin points out all the reasons why this is not a feasible plan. Cole is in tears trying to make the man understand. Finally Edwin admits both he and Garvey know he has changed. Before leaving, Edwin asks Cole if he would be willing to stay longer on the island if it meant helping Peter. Cole tells him he would stay for a lifetime if that is what it takes.
Over the next two weeks, Cole struggles to think of what to carve and how to help Peter, but he thinks of nothing. One day he sees two boats approaching the island: Edwin’s skiff and a fishing trawler. He can hardly believe it, but Peter is sitting alone on the bow of the larger boat. Cole recognizes Peter’s parents and sees Garvey on the boat as well. They all come ashore, Peter understandably reluctant to be anywhere near the boy who bashed his head into the cement. They sit around the campfire, and Edwin announces that after much serious discussion with the Justice Circle, Peter will be staying on the island along with Garvey, who has taken a leave of absence to make this happen. Peter’s parents will stay until they are sure their son is in no danger; they will sleep on the trawler until they leave. Edwin asks Cole to tell everyone what has happened to him since his arrival on the island, and Cole starts with his first experience on the island and is unsparing in his storytelling. When the totem is mentioned, Edwin asks Cole to explain the significance of the final space. Cole knows he will not be able to carve anything until he finds a way to help Peter, but Peter explodes and says he does not want Cole’s help with anything. The next morning, Peter’s parents decide to leave. They understand Cole will not hurt their son and know Peter must face his fears if he is ever going to heal. Peter’s father takes Cole aside and tells him it is clear Cole has undergone some kind of change; however, if he does anything to hurt Peter, Cole will spend the rest of his life in prison.
That afternoon Peter will have nothing to do with Cole, and that night Cole sleeps in a tent away from his cabin. In the morning, Cole taps on the door and asks if they want to join him for his soaking ritual. The two join him in a few minutes; Garvey says they will watch. Peter seems disinterested in any of it, though Garvey and Cole explain everything to him. There is no change in Peter, and Cole is still sleeping in the cold, leaky tent. One morning Peter unexpectedly kicks the anger rock down the hill, and Cole tells him it was a nice kick. Over the next few days, Peter gets minimally aggressive with Cole. Cole understands that none of them would even be here if it were not for his anger and careless actions. Soon, though, Peter is back to being morose and sullen.
One night is particularly cold and damp, and Cole is miserable. After Garvey brings him some food, Cole hears the cabin door open and Peter tells him it is warmer in the cabin. The cold, wet boy accepts the offer with alacrity. He makes hot chocolate for himself and Peter and thanks Peter for allowing him into the cabin. Peter warns him this does not mean they are friends. Garvey sleeps between the two boys. In the days after this partial truce, Peter takes advantage of every opportunity when Garvey is not around to torment Cole. Among other things, he tromps on Cole’s sleeping bag with muddy shoes. The worst attack is when Peter takes an ax to the carving of the bear on Cole’s totem. When Cole asks Peter why he did it, Peter taunts him and says Cole never really saw a Spirit Bear, and the bear that attacked him was probably ugly.
Cole has an idea, and he asks Peter if he would like to carve his own totem. Peter says nothing, but he accompanies Garvey and Cole as they maneuver another log to the campsite. Peter is not at all certain about the idea, but Cole reassures him all he has to do is carve the animals he sees and asks about the last animal Peter saw. Peter says it was a mouse, and Cole announces they will do a mouse dance tonight. Peter storms into the cabin and Cole and Garvey prepare for their evening. After dinner, Cole starts the dancing and Garvey follows with his rendition of a mouse; each of them shares what they learned from the animal. Peter finally makes some awkward moves around the fire, then announces what he learned from the mouse dance is that he looks like “a stupid dork!” and storms back into the cabin. Cole is convinced Peter will never forgive him. Garvey reminds Cole that his physical wounds are still healing, and emotional wounds go far deeper and take longer to heal.
Cole is reluctant to carve another bear in his totem because the last one took him more than a week. Instead, he and Peter each carve a mouse into their totems. Cole is amazed at how realistic Peter’s carving is. Peter asks Cole seriously if he really saw a Spirit Bear. Cole tells him about the hair he had to prove his story but that he has no need to prove anything anymore because he is no longer a liar. Peter says he wants to be alone, so the other two leave him for several hours. When they return, Cole is outraged when he sees Peter hovering over his totem. Instead, he sees a magnificent, lifelike bear carving. He is stunned at the sight and asks Peter if he will teach him to carve like that.
Summer has arrived, and the soaking ritual is a regular routine for all three of them—until one morning when Peter tells Garvey he thinks he and Cole should go alone. Garvey is hesitant, but Peter seems sure and Cole agrees despite being a little scared. They walk in silence, though Peter’s fists are clenched and he is clearly battling his anger. When Cole offers his hand in friendship, Peter goes on the attack. He hits and kicks Cole until he is bruised and bleeding, but Cole does not fight back. Peter screams at Cole to fight with him, but Cole has mastered his anger and refuses. Suddenly the kicking stops and Peter is on his knees sobbing that he is afraid of how out of control his life feels. Cole reassures Peter that he does not ever need to be afraid of him again, that they are both part of a big circle and when one of them is hurt they are both hurt. Peter continues sobbing and Cole eventually just wraps the boy in a hug and holds him. Suddenly Cole tells Peter to look up because the Spirit Bear has come to visit them. There is a moment of pure silence, and the white bear slowly turns and walks away from the boys. Peter wonders if others will believe them when they tell about seeing the bear. Cole tells him the only thing that matters is that they believe. They continue their soaking ritual and find another ancestor rock so they can both roll their anger down the hill. Cole is swollen and sore, but he is content with this morning’s progress on Peter’s healing. He solemnly gives the at.óow to Peter.
Back at camp, Peter offers to help Cole carve the final spot in his totem. When they call Garvey to see their afternoon’s work, he is stunned at the sight of a nearly perfect circle. When Garvey asks why a circle, the boys hesitate to answer. Garvey suggests it might be because a circle is the symbolic representation of no beginning and no end and everything being one. Peter shrugs and grins and says it was the only thing he could teach Cole to carve. Cole smiles and adds that he is a slow learner—but he is working to improve.