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Review of "Touching Spirit Bear"

By Ben Mikaelsen
Harpercollins Juvenile, 2001
Review by Judith Catton on Oct 30th 2001
Touching Spirit BearCole Matthews is a violent, out-of-control, angry teen. He has been in and out of trouble with the police for most of his teenage years, committing first crimes against property and, increasingly, crimes of violence against people. His latest outrage - a mindless, vicious attack on innocent bystander Peter Driscal, has left his victim with permanent brain damage and profound psychological injuries.

Angry and resentful, Cole seems on an inevitable trajectory to prison, and perhaps therefore also to a life of crime. Through the compassionate intervention of two community workers whose motivation is atonement for their own (undisclosed) youthful criminal behavior, Cole is offered the chance to participate in Circle Justice - a process of restitution based on Native American tradition. Circle Justice offers the chance for atonement for the perpetrator of the crime, the chance for restitution, and perhaps also for the victim and community's forgiveness. These concepts are in fact completely foreign to Cole, himself the victim of an unstable and violent home situation. Just as Cole has been exposed to the damage and lies of alcoholism and domestic violence, so too is he deeply scarred. Cole's caseworkers know that the deep resentment and anger that Cole harbors make him an unlikely candidate for Circle Justice. When he is initially given his "sentence" - one year's solitary confinement to a remote island in the Alaskan waters, it is clear to the reader that his commitment to the program is surface only. His first act once left in solitary confinement on the remote island is one of extreme vandalism followed by a thwarted attempt at escape.

It is ultimately the intervention not by any person, but by the giant, powerful Spirit Bear of the story's title that triggers the beginning of a change in perspective for Cole. This legendary (though also very real) Spirit Bear encounters and responds to Cole's aggression by savaging him and leaving him close to death. Through this near-death encounter Cole is humbled enough to start on a long and very painful journey of atonement, a journey that that eventually enables him to see himself no longer as the center, but as only a small part of a much larger and much richer whole.

Michaelson gives us a full picture of teenage Cole's troubled personality, his life, his chances and his painful growth. He paints a picture of an angry, out-of-control teen who resists, wrestles with, and finally accepts, the chance to face responsibility for his choices. The novel's bringing together of Cole and his damaged victim, Peter at the end is perhaps unlikely, and yet this idealized conclusion nevertheless suggests to the reader a potentially constructive alternative to conventional routes of punishment and retribution, and a thoughtful, positive view of the chance to heal deep wounds.

© 2001 Judith Catton

Judith Catton is a teacher and librarian with a longstanding interest in children's literature. After completing graduate study in Library and Information Science, and in English in Ontario, Canada, she has worked as a children's specialist in public libraries in both Canada and New Zealand. Her professional interests span children's literature and learning, and information literacy. Her current professional focus is full-time teaching in a New Zealand primary school.