Wednesday, December 17, 2008

Guest Blog – Touching Spirit Bear

Once in awhile I am ready to take a break from mystery novels, so when this book was recommended to me, I thought I would read it. After all I have been reading all of the James D. Doss books at the local library featuring Charlie Moon who is a Ute.

If I had a young son who was struggling to read, Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen is a story that I would urge him to try. The novel is about Cole Matthews who is a 15 year old juvenile offender. Cole has always been in trouble and has always been angry. When a fellow classmate reports to the police that Cole has bragged about a break-in and robbery, Cole seeks revenge on the tattle tale. He attacks Peter and in his rage beats Peter’s head against the sidewalk. Only the interference of someone else prevents him from actually beating Peter to death.

While awaiting trial, Cole is assigned to Garvey a Tlingit tribe parole officer. It is likely that Cole with his long record of violence and larceny will be tried as an adult. Garvey intervenes and believing that the smooth talking Cole might actually be ready to change his life, recommends Cole for Circle Justice. Circle Justice is a community effort to rehabilitate offenders. The process of this system is a bit on the long side in Mikaelsen’s novel but it does give crucial background for the story. We discover that Cole has been beaten and neglected by his alcoholic father with the quiet acquiescence of his submissive drinking mother. He sees his world as a place where the only control he can have is through intimidation of others.

After months of waiting, the Circle of Justice determines that it will allow Cole to participate in their plan for healing his anger and abusiveness. He is to spend a year alone on an island just off the coast of Alaska. Shortly after arriving there, Cole sees the large white bear known as the Spirit Bear. In his anger and rage, Cole attacks the bear. Of course, the bear in defense of himself lashes out. For several days, Cole lies in the continuous rain with broken ribs and pelvis and multiple fractures in his right arm. Mosquitoes prey upon the torn flesh in his chest and rodents and seagulls come to participate in the feast. Broken and fragile, Cole struggles to remain alive despite his injuries.

The attack by the Spirit Bear happens early in the novel. The story is about Cole’s gradual acceptance of responsibility for his behavior and the slow process of healing and finding hope. Mikaelsen is able to make the angry and defiant Cole very real without resorting to using the kind of language that as a reader I have no doubt that he used. There is a sense of hope to the story despite the fact that the author makes it very clear that cycles of abuse are often passed from one generation to another. The abuse affects all of the community and there are no simple answers for healing violent and broken souls or healing the neighborhoods they have affected. Definitely a worthwhile read for the young reader and for adults.

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