Touching Spirit Bear by Ben Mikaelsen

Cole Matthews is an angry young man. His bullying and fighting at school have already landed him in several juvenile detention centers. Now he has crossed the line by smashing a fellow student’s head repeatedly on the sidewalk to the point of irreparable brain damage. The defendant’s lawyer is determined to see Cole tried in an adult criminal court. If convicted, he will go to prison.

As a last-ditch effort to save him from this fate, Cole’s parole officer convinces him and his parents to try Circle Justice, a Native American alternative that seeks to find healing rather than imposing punishment. The group of community members that make up Circle Justice sentence Cole to a harsh fate. He has to spend one year on a remote Alaskan island, isolated from all other humans, where he must find his own food and build his own shelter.

Cole thinks it all sounds stupid, but he’ll lie and pretend to submit if he has to in order to avoid prison. On the island, he only thinks of escape and refuses to heed the wise advice of Garvey, his parole officer, who is himself a Native American. However, he finds that his usual techniques of lying and intimidation don’t work against hunger, cold, and the Spirit Bear, an unusual albino bear that Garvey had never seen near this island before.

Cole’s near-death encounter with the Spirit Bear changes him in ways that the pleading and cajoling of his parents and teachers never could. Now he is ready for the next step in Circle Justice, and it may be the hardest one of all—forgiveness, and reparation to those he has harmed.

Ben Mikaelsen knows his subject well. He lives in a secluded log cabin near Bozeman, Montana, with a 700-pound black bear that he has raised and lived with for the past twenty-five years. He has also lived as a homeless person in Mexico, so he knows what it is like to be isolated and forced to fend for himself.

Mikaelsen has written a sequel, Ghost of Spirit Bear, about how Cole goes back to his tough, gang-ridden high school and tries to live out the things he learned on the island. As the jacket cover states, “Survival in the wilderness was just the beginning.” Sequels are often not as good as the original, but not in this case. The story of how Cole learns to apply Circle Justice principles in new ways is just as inspiring as his adventures on the island.

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