Whatever you do to the animals, you do to yourself. Remember that. At fifteen, Cole Matthews has been fighting and stealing for years. The punishment for smashing Peter Driscal's skull into the sidwalk--his most recent crime--is harsh. This time, Cole will have to choose between prison and Native American Circle Justice. He will live either behind bars or in isolation for one year. Cole chooses Circle Justice. But in the first days of his banishment to a remote Alaskan island, he is mauled by a mysterious white bear and nearly dies. Will the attack of the spirit bear destroy Cole's life or save his soul?
I was so touched by this young adult novel from the moment that I read its first few pages. Cole, a young adult oftentimes with a bad attitude, could have been any number of classmates I had. He never wanted to accept accountability for his poor decisions. His parents could have been any parents: newly divorced and preoccupied with careers and social lives. His dad could have been a classmate who was physically and/or emotionally abused on a daily basis. Cole's bitterness and anger at a world who had failed him could have been mine.
Touching Spirit Bear deals with many adult-like issues and provokes the reader to answer questions when fighting one's own demons, " What was death like? Did it hurt? Did it come fast like lightening from the sky or a blow from the Spirit Bear? Did death sneak around like a stinking seagull, trying to snatch life from a body like meat chunks from a rotting carcass? Or did life just flicker out like a dim candle?" (page 71)
As an alternative to jail time, Cole feels that being sequestered on an Alaskan island would be a more suitable alternative. He soon realizes that "What a fool he had been to come here instead of going to jail. Atleast in jail he would have been in the safety and comfort of a cell. He would have had some control. Here he was powerless, nobody to control, nobody to blame. Every action worked against him and hurt him." (page 73)
Surviving my young adolescent years was difficult. Much like Cole, I felt that the world owed me something in return for my half-hearten effort. Sometimes we are filled with such confusion that like Cole, we fail to realize, "the world was beautiful." (page 97). Anger, bitterness, trust, regret, and other relevant themes will emerge throughout the pages of Part One: Touching Spirit Bear.
New essential questions emerge in Part Two: Return to Spirit Bear. "What was the one thing that would help him [Cole Matthews] heal? And how could he become invincible?" (page 188). If I were teaching this novel in my classroom, I would have students to ponder upon each of these ideas. Perhaps the most obvious themes in Part Two are forgiveness and healing.
Although I am a bit of a skeptic, Circle Justice has been practiced by native cultures for many. You can read more about that here. Spirit Bears actually do exist of the coast of British Columbia, and you may read more about those here.
If you have students who may have a squeamish stomach, you may want to sensor out some of the survival techniques. There aren't many gruesome incidents, but as someone who has a sensitive stomach, I did have to fight the urge to gag. It's nothing more than what most kids have seen watching Survivor on CBS, but my stomach won't allow me process those situations. It's a mental thing, I'm sure.
If any of your students come from foster homes due to physical or emotional abuse, this novel my open some old wounds. With this said, it is a beautiful story of healing and moving beyond the anger of being a victim.
If you'd like to read Touching Spirit Bear it can be purchased here. Visit the author's website to learn more about Ben Mikaelsen.