Touching Spirit Bear Suggested Essays

Suggested Essay Questions

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  1. 1

    Animals and the forces of nature strongly influence Cole's experience of healing during his time on the island. Comment on the symbolism and themes evoked by these various nature encounters.

    In this essay, the student should choose three prominent symbols (including, among many, the Spirit Bear, the seagull, the bird nest, the thunderstorm, the wolf, the beaver, the freezing pond, the ancestor rock, etc.) and explain their symbolism. The key to a good response is first to explain the symbolic message held behind each one. Cole often explicitly states this explanation in the text. However, the best answers will link the three symbols together and show how they evolved in meaning over time to Cole, demonstrating a deeper level of analysis.

  2. 2

    What does it mean to "touch the Spirit Bear"? A good answer will explore both the literal and figurative meanings of this phrase.

    A good answer will first detail the entire process of the Spirit Bear's attack on Cole and how this not only physically wounded him, but also psychologically humbled him. The act of physically touching the Spirit Bear can be interpreted many ways, as long as it is well defended. It can symbolize forgiveness between enemies, the link between man and nature, man's search for healing and meaning in life, and more. However, all good answers will connect the literal and figurative meanings together in a coherent argument.

  3. 3

    In the last chapter, Cole and Peter learn that life is in many ways a circle. Explore how Cole's personal growth was connected to that of three other characters, and how their relationship both helped and impeded healing and forgiveness.

    In this essay, the student should pick several characters that interacted with Cole (including his parents, Peter, Edwin, Garvey, and others). A good answer will explore the troubles with each relationship using specific examples and then explore how each person was transformed along with Cole. Exceptional answers will explore the unresolved tensions between characters remaining at the end of the novel to complicate the notion that Cole's healing was completely finished by the end.

  4. 4

    In Cole's case, Circle Justice seems to allow for a complete personal transformation over the course of the novel. Comment on the conditions that would make Circle Justice a viable alternative to the traditional justice system as well as some of the drawbacks of Circle Justice, using examples from the text.

    The author himself admits that the idea of banishment is not necessarily the usual application of Circle Justice, and a good essay will use the tragedy of Cole's first visit to the island to complicate the notion that Circle Justice is simple. The disagreements during the circles, both as seen through Cole's flashbacks and after the failure of Cole's first banishment, could be great starting points for reflections on the weaknesses of a process that involves raw emotions and human judgment. Nevertheless, the novel provides plenty of examples of how the traditional system also is a failure, and the best essays will develop criteria for when Circle Justice could be most successful (i.e. in a large community, when the crime is less serious or more serious, etc.) and support this with examples.

  5. 5

    Cole's experience of abuse deeply affects his future violence and healing. Explore how the author develops the relationship between Cole and his father by analyzing two scenes in which they interact (these can be flashbacks or any other scene).

    The relationship between father and son is crucial to Cole's healing. He must first learn to forgive his father for beating him, before he can give up his own streak of violence. Key scenes from this development include flashbacks of his father beating him, interactions at the circle, and accounts from his mother of his dad's status towards the end of the novel. The best answers will explore the ways in which the obstinate father's unwillingness to change contrasts with Cole's humble submission to circle justice.

  6. 6

    How does the author's use of flashbacks and third-person omniscient narration affect mood, setting, and character development within the novel? Support your answer with specific examples.

    In this essay, the student must step back and analyze the techniques that the author uses to develop the plot. A good answer will first define the terms in the question and then use specific examples to demonstrate the foreboding mood and suspense created by the flashbacks, the troubling insights into Cole's thought processes, and the ability for the reader to empathize with Cole and view the story from his perspective. The best answers will explore further how placing us in Cole's mindset across different points in time helps us understand Circle Justice, native rituals, and other key aspects of the novel.

  7. 7

    Tlingit Indian traditions, particularly as explored through the character of Edwin, form a central part of Cole's healing. Explain why the author might have chosen a different cultural context for Cole's healing rather than a setting in Minnesota with other Americans, and use specific examples of how he uses cultural traditions as symbols and in plot development

    In this essay, the student must speculate about the author's intentions in placing Cole in a different cultural context; however, the best answers will acknowledge the importance of the challenging one's cultural assumptions and respecting others in the healing process. Useful examples would include the at.óow blanket, the multiple animal dances, and the carving of the totem pole.

  8. 8

    While in the first half of the novel, Cole's healing in the circle is partially shaped by the desires of Peter and his parents, Cole's healing in the second half of the novel seems to be accompanied by Peter's own decline into depression and suicide attempts. Explain the circular nature of both characters' development and how each one is able to forgive the other.

    The author emphasizes the connectedness of those who cause harm to others. Thus, a key insight for this essay is that for true justice to be served it is not only the criminal that must be healed or serve a sentence; the victim must also go through a forgiveness and healing process. A great essay will contrast the attitudes and perspectives of Peter and his parents before and after Cole's own transformation, leading up to the pair's ultimate reconciliation. An exceptional essay will question whether Peter and Cole really did forgive each other and the extent to which full forgiveness is possible between two people who have hurt each other.

  9. 9

    After Cole is mauled by the Spirit Bear, several chapters follow in which he is immobilized on the ground, and yet these are some of the most symbolic and psychologically harrowing moments of the novel. Explore the symbols, details, and devices that the author uses to convey an image of psychological transformation in a person so clearly physically immobilized.

    Good essays will comment on the graphic and disturbing details contained within this episode, including Cole's eating of worms, a mouse, and his own vomit. They will also explore the crucial symbol of the bird nest and the thunderstorm. The author evokes the connectedness of nature and Cole's own healing and narrates in a way that lets the reader into Cole's mind in this most excruciating of moments. Students should explore the author's descriptions of Cole's pain, helplessness, and acceptance of possible death.

  10. 10

    When the circle members doubt that Cole actually saw a Spirit Bear after his first return from the island, explain why Cole chooses not to show them the white tuft of hair as proof. How does this episode represent part of Cole's broader coming of age narrative?

    Cole declares in this section of the novel that he wants to be taken at his word and that he wants others to trust him. This forms a central aspect of the coming of age story, as Cole decides to demand the respect of an adult. It is part of Cole's own process of coming to accept his own maturity and responsibility, and it foreshadows much of the personal growth that one sees in the second half of the book.