“Touching Spirit Bear,” authored by Ben Mikaelsen and released in 2001, unfolds an enthralling tale of redemption and self-discovery set against the rugged backdrop of a remote Alaskan island.
Inspired by Mikaelsen’s bond with his pet black bear, Buffy, and enriched with cultural nuances from the Tlingit Tribe of Alaska, this young adult novel is a captivating journey of a troubled teen, Cole Matthews, who finds himself at the crossroads of tradition and transformation.
The story begins with Cole being transported to the island by Garvey, his parole officer, and Edwin, a Tlingit elder, as an alternative to incarceration for a violent assault on a peer, Peter Driscal, back in Minneapolis.
This assault left Peter with lasting injuries, and Cole with a grim outlook on his future. Garvey, seeing a reflection of his younger self in Cole, proposes a novel form of justice: banishment to the island, guided by the principles of the Healing Circle, a tribal method aimed at restorative justice.
Upon arrival, Cole’s defiance and anger towards the world are palpable. He views his banishment as abandonment and in a rebellious act, burns down the shelter built for him, symbolically attempting to destroy his past and those who have wronged him.
His subsequent attempt to escape the island nearly costs him his life, marking the beginning of a profound transformation.
It is the encounter with the Spirit Bear, a mystical creature revered by the Tlingit, that becomes a pivotal moment for Cole. After being severely mauled by the bear, Cole lies at death’s door, where he experiences a profound epiphany about life and survival.
This moment of vulnerability leads to a gradual shift in his perspective, helped along by the guidance and wisdom imparted by Garvey and Edwin upon his recovery and return to the island.
The narrative beautifully transitions into Cole’s journey of healing and self-reflection, facilitated by Edwin’s traditional wisdom practices such as the freezing pond, the ancestor stone, and the creation of a personal totem pole.
These practices, along with Garvey’s lessons on the value of life and self-forgiveness, steer Cole towards a path of redemption and understanding.
As Cole embraces his new way of life, the novel takes another turn with the introduction of Peter to the island, in hopes of healing from his own trauma.
Their relationship, fraught with tension and mistrust, slowly evolves into a profound connection, symbolized by the circle they carve into Cole’s totem pole, representing life’s cyclical nature and interconnectedness.
Cole is the protagonist of the story, a troubled teenager from Minneapolis who is sent to a remote Alaskan island as an alternative to incarceration.
His journey from anger and defiance to understanding and redemption is central to the narrative.
Cole’s transformation is catalyzed by his near-death experience and subsequent encounters with the Spirit Bear, teaching him the importance of accountability, forgiveness, and connection with nature.
Garvey is Cole’s parole officer, who plays a crucial role in Cole’s journey to redemption. Seeing a part of himself in Cole, Garvey advocates for an alternative form of justice through the Healing Circle and becomes a mentor to Cole.
He is patient and believes in the power of change, providing Cole with wisdom and support throughout his journey.
Edwin, a Tlingit elder, is instrumental in Cole’s healing process.
He introduces Cole to various traditional practices that aid in his self-reflection and understanding of life. Edwin represents the wisdom of age and tradition, and his teachings are pivotal in Cole’s transformation.
Peter is the boy Cole assaulted, leaving him with severe physical and psychological injuries.
His journey intersects with Cole’s when he is brought to the island to heal. Peter’s struggle with anger, fear, and forgiveness mirrors Cole’s own path to redemption, making their eventual reconciliation a powerful testament to the novel’s themes of healing and forgiveness.
The Spirit Bear is a mystical creature that symbolizes the connection between nature and humanity.
Its encounters with Cole are turning points in the story, teaching him lessons about survival, humility, and respect.
The Spirit Bear’s presence is a constant reminder of the novel’s deeper themes, including the importance of nature in the healing process.
1. Healing and Redemption
At its core, the novel explores the arduous process of healing and redemption, demonstrating that true change requires both internal reflection and external actions.
Cole Matthews, the protagonist, embodies the struggle of confronting one’s past actions and the consequences they bring.
Initially, Cole’s approach to life is marked by anger, blame, and a refusal to take responsibility for his actions. However, through his experiences on the island, especially his encounters with the Spirit Bear, Cole learns the importance of acknowledging his mistakes, seeking forgiveness, and making amends.
This theme is further amplified by the novel’s depiction of the Healing Circle, a symbol of restorative justice that emphasizes healing for the victim, the community, and the offender himself.
Through Cole’s journey, the novel suggests that redemption is possible for anyone willing to embark on the difficult path of self-discovery and reconciliation.
2. Interconnectedness of Life
Another pivotal theme in the novel is the interconnectedness of life, illustrating how all beings and actions are interrelated and affect each other.
This theme is introduced through the Tlingit beliefs and traditions that permeate the story, including the symbolism of the Spirit Bear as a creature that transcends the physical world, embodying the connection between humanity and nature.
The novel portrays how Cole’s actions have ripple effects, not only on his own life but also on Peter’s life and their wider community.
Through the motif of the circle—especially the one carved into Cole’s totem pole—the story conveys the idea that life is a continuous cycle of actions and consequences, highlighting the importance of understanding our place within this cycle and acting with awareness and compassion.
3. The Power of Nature in Transformation
Mikaelsen intricately showcases nature not just as a setting but as a vital character in the narrative, instrumental in Cole’s transformation.
The harsh yet majestic Alaskan wilderness serves as both a mirror and a catalyst for Cole’s internal journey. The natural elements—be it the terrifying encounter with the Spirit Bear, the serene yet demanding task of carving a totem pole, or the humbling experience of surviving in the wilderness—force Cole to confront his deepest fears, weaknesses, and ultimately, his capacity for change.
Nature, in its untamed and primal glory, acts as a teacher for Cole, imparting lessons of resilience, humility, and the significance of living in harmony with the world around us.
Through this theme, the novel posits that nature holds the key to understanding ourselves and finding our path to redemption.
“Touching Spirit Bear” is more than just a story of a boy’s survival and redemption; it’s a testament to the power of forgiveness, the importance of cultural wisdom, and the unbreakable bond between humans and nature.
Through Cole’s journey, Mikaelsen weaves a compelling narrative that not only entertains but also imparts valuable lessons about the essence of healing and the transformative power of understanding and compassion.