Mikaelsen, Ben. Touching Spirit Bear. New York: Harper Collins, 2001.
I LOVED this book. This book has been sitting in my (very large) pile for OVER a year. I avoided reading it last summer and it sat there for the entire school year, unread. I think I avoided it because of what I thought the book was about as opposed to what it ended up being about! The picture on the cover made the bear appear to be fake. Also, the title, calls it a "spirit bear" giving me the impression that it wasn't real. I thought this was going to be some sort of novel about a boy going out on a vision quest or something, which could be pretty boring.
Cole is an angry boy. His father has beaten him for his entire life which has made him angry; he takes this anger out on the world. He has been in trouble at school and with the law, but he doesn't care. One day he beats up Peter for no reason, banging his head on the concrete repeatedly. This is one mess his father can't get him out of. Cole's problem is also that he doensn't take any personal responsibilty for any of his actions. He blames everyone for his problems, he even blames Peter for being attacked by him because he asked for it.
His parole officer, Garvey, a native Tlinget Indian, suggests that instead of going to jail, he go through Circle Justice. Circle Justice is a way that Native American use to "punish" their criminals. In his Circle Justice, Cole is sent to an island off the coast of Alaska where he must live alone, except for occassional visits from Edwin, who brings supplies and tries to steer Cole in the right direction. On his first night, he torches his hut and tries to swim away to another island, but the tide just brings him right back. Before he can swim away again at low tide, a white bear (called a Spirit Bear) approaches him. Because the bear isn't afraid of him, Cole tries to kill it, and it retaliates, breaking many of Cole's bones and slicing up his body. He lays there for days, and only then does he realize he wants to live and wants to change.
There is more to the story but I don't want to give away too many details. The only negative to the book was that Cole seemed to "get it" and want to change a little too early in the story. He was only on the island for several days before being mauled by the bear. Yes, a near death experience can change anyone overnight, but this seemed a bit too much overnight for my tastes. Still, the story iteself is so well written and powerful this one slight problem doesn't take away from the overall effect of this book, which is amazing.