Touching Spirit Bear

Title: Touching Spirit Bear
Author: Ben Mikaelsen
Pub Date: 2001
Pages: 240
Genre: Young Adult; Realistic Fiction
Why'd I pick it up: A couple of teachers at my school have taught this novel in the past. I read it in pursuit of a novel study for the 3rd nine weeks.


Fifteen year old Cole has been arrested and this time around his wealthy, drunk, and divorced parents cannot bail him out. In a rage-filled moment, Cole smashed peer Peter's head against the concrete sidewalk leaving him permanently physically damaged. The courts plan on trying him as an adult, and Cole's future appears to hold nothing less than a long jail sentence. Except Cole's probation officer, Garvey, sees something on himself in this destructive young boy and suggests the town consult with a Circle Justice before trying him. After hearing the pleas of Peter, Peter's family, Cole, Cole's parents, and the townsfolk, Cole is banished to an island on the offshore of Alaska for a year where he must survive alone. Garvey believes the silence of solitude will allow Cole to come to terms with his anger and allow for growth and healing.


I loved this book, and I know that my students will love it as well. Cole is a believable character. I can actually feel his anger and vulnerability. The first half of the book reminded me of Hatchet by Gary Paulsen, which is a favorite of my students, so I know the survival and adventure aspect of Touching Spirit Bear will appeal to them as well. But the book is so much more than realistic fiction; it's interspersed with life lessons and bits of spiritual philosophy. The Justice Circle is Native American based, and the two Native American characters in Touching Spirit Bear come from the Tlingit tribe. I admit, I know very little about Native American culture, but the small dosages that Mikaelsen feeds his readers are manageable, insightful, and teasingly enough for me to want to research more of the area and aspects of the Tlingit tribe and their form of punishment.

Garvey and Edwin (the two natives and guides to Cole) speak in abstract illustrations rather than telling Cole his lessons straightforward. It reminds me of what I find so appealing with Eastern religions, the individual hears the lesson and personalizes it. There's a necessary "Aha" moment that allows for ownership. What real learning is, I suppose.

"This discovery excited Cole and set him to thinking. If animals existed in a world of instincts and senses beyond conscious thoughts of the mind, what happened to people in their frantic worlds of noise and hectic rushing? How much of the world did people miss because they were not calm enough, empty enough, to experience it? Cole's thoughts raced as he stared up at the black ceiling of the small cabin."

I love novels that encourage stillness, especially to our kids.
The Circle Justice is an interesting idea as well. Does our system of imprisonment actually rehabilitate or does it only continue the criminal cycle? The Circle Justice way attempts to heal rather than punish, is that sufficient? Especially when it comes to crimes such as Cole's where another human being's quality of life is less because of the criminal act? I don't necessarily believe that our criminal justice system is a deterrent to criminal behavior, but I surely don't have the answer to an acceptable exchange. Primarily because I think that we're too large of a nation. In tribal communities, individuals are families with their neighbors, their livelihood is based on their relationships. We don't have that sense of community, of love of neighbor. What I did think was significant in Touching Spirit Bear was that even though Cole went through the banishment, he was reminded by Garvey several times that he could potentially still face a judge and be sentenced. There were moments when I was even reminded of Band of the Hand (the movie, has anyone else seen it?).

Overall, I think that this review is pretty straightforward on my feelings- this is such a fantastic novel, both in plot, characters, and philosophy. Whatever flaws I could find were easily overlooked (so far as I cannot even recall any right now two days after reading the book!). I can't wait to see how receptive this book is to my kids.


  1. The cover is absolutely awesome. I would buy it just for that. Though the book sounds really good too.

  2. I think this book looks wonderful and I really enjoyed your review and thoughts on it.

    One of the worst books ever.
    I hated the ending.
    The only thing I liked were all the Life Lessons to be learned.
    I would NEVER in a million years recommend this book to ANYONE unless they wanted to be disappointed by a horrible book.


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