Touching Spirit Bear, published in 2001, is an account of a young boy's experience with violence, forgiveness, and nature as he is banished to a remote Alaskan island as punishment for a violent crime. During this time, he is confronted by a rare bear species, the Spirit Bear, in a way that transforms his perspective on his own life and on the world. While this premise may seem far-fetched, the author closely researched the setting and the topic in order to make this work of fiction reflect certain realities. Mikaelsen, while writing the book, took a trip to Alaska and to British Columbia in order to observe the setting for the book. He writes in the “Author’s Note” at the end of the novel that Spirit Bears actually do exist, and that he personally saw a three-hundred pound male Spirit Bear while on his travels.
Further, the author’s understanding of the bear as a symbol of man confronting nature, of power, pride, and healing was shaped by his own experience as the owner of a 700-pound black bear named Buffy. He adopted the bear when the bear was small, and Mikaelsen raised it near his cabin in Montana. Clearly, the relationship between man and animal is a central aspect not just of the novel but also of the author’s life.
Finally, Mikaelsen researched the concept of “Circle Justice” in the writing of the book as part of his interest in exploring paths to healing and forgiveness for those who have committed violent crimes. Although Circle Justice was traditionally practiced by Native cultures, it has been used in some United States court systems, and Mikaelsen posits that while banishment to a remote island may not be realistic, the reader should be open to alternative paths to justice, forgiveness, and healing.
Thus, the novel is certainly a work of fiction, but it is very much informed by real natural sites and real judicial and cultural systems. It is essential to read the book with an open mind regarding the unusual journey and sentencing of Cole Matthews. The author wants the reader to understand the difficulties facing youth going through the juvenile justice system, and to open up his or her own mind to the power of nature to reveal hidden truths.