“What you focus on becomes reality. Everybody carries anger inside. But also happiness.” – Edwin
I am not an outdoorsy person. I am not much of a camper and I have never been all that good with my hands. If I was to be stranded on a deserted island, I would probably have a pretty rough time staying alive. In Ben Mikaelsen’s Touching Spirit Bear, Cole, a teenager potentially on his way to jail for assaulting a fellow student, has his sentence commuted to be a one year wilderness experience, alone on a deserted island on the southeast coast of Alaska. This is meant to be a time of reflection and rebirth for Cole, which is a major theme throughout the novel, but he quickly derails the entire incident. First, he burns down the small cabin that was built for him, including all of the provisions provided for him. Then he decides to try and swim across a large channel of terribly cold water to try and escape, which he fails miserably at. And finally, he attacks a giant white bear, just to prove that he is tougher than the bear. Unsurprisingly, it doesn’t go well for Cole and he is left mauled, starving, and lying on a beach in Alaska. The story becomes all about Cole’s deathbed-like experience when he realizes why he has acted out so much over the years and how he can attempt to change.
This theme of rediscovery and healing drives the narrative forward. As Cole spends time on the island, acting brashly, the chapters are mixed with flashbacks of the meetings and experiences Cole went through which landed him on the island, such as his act of violence towards his schoolmate, Peter, his experience with the Circle Justice group in which he lied constantly to try and avoid jail time, and even his retelling of the abuse his father had doled out throughout his childhood. Cole’s epiphany that he has while lying near death on the beach allows him to come to the realization that he acts out because of his need to be in control and to be feared, because that is how he always viewed his father. His realization leads him to seek more help and earns him a second trip to the island, after six months of physical therapy. This is where his real process of rebirth occurs. He learns to channel his anger. Not squelch it, but control it. His growth over time allows him to seek forgiveness, which is the second major theme in the story.
As Cole reaches the end of his one year sentence, he has learned to channel his anger and he has adopted the natural world as a place for him to connect and learn. But, the target of his earlier assault, Peter, has taken a turn for the worse psychologically, and attempts suicide. It becomes Cole’s responsibility to try and convince Peter that his life has value and meaning, and through this, he will hopefully find Peter’s forgiveness for his act of violence. This second journey of redemption and forgiveness is where Cole is truly tested, and it is an interesting journey that he takes to try and help Peter overcome his psychological issues.
In the end, I wasn’t a huge fan of Touching Spirit Bear. I felt the characters were too unbelievable, Cole specifically, and his reactions to things and choices early in the novel left me more frustrated than engaged. I think there are some students that would definitely connect with the broken anti-hero who seeks redemption concept, but it just did not work for me. While the story is one that would be great for many students to read, because it leads them to think outside of themselves and be less selfish, it was not a book that kept me up at night, wanting to read more. If I were to use this story in a Lit Circle setting, I would use it for grade 9 and above and pair it with Laurie Halse Anderson’s Twisted, Ishmael Beah’s A Long Way Gone or S.E. Hinton’s The Outsiders, as they all deal with a troubled past, a challenging experience, or a neglectful parent. Touching Spirit Bear might lead some to find peace and rebirth in nature, but, for an indoorsman like me, it fell flat.