What happens in Touching Spirit Bear?
Cole Matthews has been accused of beating a boy who informed on him to the police. His punishment is in accordance with the rules of Circle Justice: he will be taken to an abandoned island in Southeast Alaska, where he's supposed to fend for himself for one year.
- Immediately after he arrives, Cole burns down the cabin where he was supposed to live. He attempts to swim off the island, but the tides are strong. He winds up cold and alone, sleeping in the ashes of the ruined cabin.
- Cole struggles to survive. He eats grass, insects, and a raw mouse. He sees a white bear, the Spirit Bear, who breaks his arm. Later, the bear approaches him again, this time gently. Cole is rescued by the same men who brought him to the island.
- Six months later, wounds healed, Cole returns to the island. He builds himself a cabin and manages to fend for himself. In the winter, Peter, the boy he attacked, comes to live with him. Finally, Cole works through his anger, and the two are able to reconcile.
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...
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