Monday, March 1, 2010

Touching Spirit Bear

By: Ben Mikaelsen

Within Cole Matthews lies anger, rage and hate. Cole has been stealing and fighting for years. This time he caught Peter Driscal in the parking lot and smashed his head against the sidewalk. Now, Peter may have permanent brain damage and Cole is in the biggest trouble of his life.

Cole is offered Circle Justice: a system based on Native American traditions that attempts to provide healing for the criminal offender, the victim, and the community. With prison as his only alternative, Cole plays along. He says he wants to repent, but in his heart, Cole blames his alcoholic mom, his abusive dad, wimpy Peter (everyone but himself) for his situation.

Cole receives a one-year banishment to a remote Alaskan island. There, he is mauled by a mysterious white bear of Native American legend. Hideously injured, Cole waits for death. His thoughts shift from anger to humility. To survive, he must stop blaming others and take responsibility for his life. Rescuers arrive to save Cole's body, but it is the attack of the Spirit Bear that may save his soul.

Ben Mikaelsen paints a vivid picture of a juvenile offender, examining the roots of his anger without absolving him of responsibility for his actions, and questioning a society in which angry people make victims of their peers and communities. TOUCHING SPIRIT BEAR is a poignant testimonial to the power of a pain that can destroy, or lead to healing. (from
I really loved this book. This is another one that I can't believe I hadn't read yet, and probably would never have stumbled upon if not for an upcoming book festival in Rochester, NY where the author will be speaking. In an attempt to read at least one book from each author, I picked this one first, and I'm glad I did.

Mikaelsen really looks at alot of painful topics in this book and does so with grace and style. Cole Matthews is angry and violent and lashes out at whoever he can and in one moment he goes from being a bully, to being arrested for nearly beating a classmate to death. As is he leaves Peter broken both physically and emotionally. In an attempt to avoid jail he accepts Circle Justice, a native american concept in which all members of the community come together to figure out the best plan to heal the hurt and pain for all involved, both victim and attacker. Cole's punishment is a one year banishment to a remote island where he is to come to grips with who he is and what he has become. On the island Cole encounters a spirit bear, who when attacked by Cole, attacks right back leaving Cole battered physically and emotionally. Cole learns more on this island, then in any of the counselors offices and detention centers he ever had been in.

Mikaelsen looks at the cycle of violence and the cycle of healing. In the same way violence can lead to more violence, a good act and a helping hand can lead to more charity. I think this book is one that really sheds light on why kids sometimes act the way they do, and how a community can come together to help these misdirected kids find their way again.

There is a second book in this series that I am waiting for Ghost of Spirit Bear, and I look forward to seeing how Cole copes with ebing back in the environment that created his anger in the first place.

On a side note- Ben Mikaelsen has a great website that provides all sorts of lesson plans and activities to be used in conjunction with his books.

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