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Touching Spirit Bear Summary and Analysis

by Ben Mikaelsen

Chapters 5, 6, 7, and 8

Summary

Chapter 5

The scene returns from the flashback of the Healing Circle back to the scene of Cole swimming away from the shore. Cole realizes how futile his efforts are when he gets a leg cramp and notices that the incoming tide is pushing him back to the shore. His legs hit the rocky bottom of the shore as he is washed up, and he collapsed on the shore, in pain and without shelter.

As he struggles to get up, he sees a white bear: the Spirit Bear. He was intimidated by how fearless the bear was, and he even threw a rock at it to see if it would get scared. However, the bear remains motionless until it suddenly disappears. Strangely, in the remains of the fire, the at.óow remains, and Cole puts it over his shoulders. Cole keeps going over the scenes of the Circles back home with community members, and the chapter closes with a scene from one of the circles where Cole yells out publicly and in front of his parents that his father abuses him physically.

Chapter 6

The flashback to his father and the circle continues, and all of the Circle Justice meetings continue to haunt him and cause him pain as he reflects on his current predicament on the island. Cole and his father have a very public argument about whether Cole has indeed been beaten. The Keeper, or leader of the circle, continues to insist that only the person with the feather may speak, and so she gives the feather to Cole to respond to his father’s comments. Cole insists that he has been abused, and he hands the feather to his mom so that she may confirm this fact. His mother, however, is too afraid to speak, and simply passes the feather on.

The scene moves on to Peter and his family. Peter’s family speaks of how Peter has speech and coordination problems and wakes up at night with vivid nightmares because of Cole’s attack. The three-hour Healing Circle ends, and Cole is escorted out of the room in handcuffs. On the way, Garvey asks Cole’s father what his son’s birthday is, and he doesn’t even remember.

Back on the island, Cole moves to a stream nearby for water and finds some hot coals, which he uses to fan a fire to keep him warm. Anger continues to bubble in his mind, as he remembers scenes of his father hitting him. One particular scene comes to mind—the only time his mother defended him. In it, Cole arrived late one night, and his father beat him with a belt, even with the metal portion of the belt. His mother weakly defends him, and his father threatens to beat her too.

Then Cole remembers how after the fifth circle, the solution had been proposed to send Cole somewhere far and isolated so that he could not hurt others. Garvey suggested his native land of Alaska, where there are many abandoned islands, and the members of the circle agree that banishment could be a good option.

Chapter 7

The scene returns back completely to the island. Cole observes the orca whales just off the shore, and the Spirit Bear appears once more. Cole now prepares a sharpened branch as a spear along with his small knife for the next time the Spirit Bear appears. He has been on the island for one full day, and that night he has a very fitful sleep. He wakes up constantly fearing that the bear is near him, but the bear is nowhere to be found.

In the morning, he finds food by scaring away seagulls and stealing the fish that they had caught. Cole planned to try again to escape the island when the tide receded in the afternoon, but before he had the chance, he sees the Spirit Bear at the intersection of the stream and the bay. He rushes the bear and approaches it closely. He aims the spear at the Spirit Bear.

Chapter 8

The action of Cole’s Spirit Bear encounter continues. Cole thrusts the spear towards the bear, but the animal easily deflects it. The bear easily strikes Cole over the head with a powerful blow. The bear bites into Cole’s thigh, scratches Cole’s chest, and lifts him over his head. As a final act of domination, the Bear places his paws on Cole’s chest and cracks his ribs. Then, the bear stands over Cole in the pouring rain, and Cole can only move his left arm and his head, unable to lift himself. Every other part of his body is broken and in pain. The bear slowly shifts away as seagulls a few steps away fight over torn pieces of Cole’s flesh. Cole realizes that the bear is the only thing that has ever been unafraid of him. A bloody bone protruded from his right arm, and his hand was stuffed with thistles from a Devil’s Club plant that he had grabbed while trying to escape the bear.

Cole, during this time, feels powerless and truly “imprisoned.” He contemplates death. He vomits up the fish he had for lunch and loses consciousness. He awakes to find himself barely alive, still immobilized, and more powerless and alone than he has ever felt before. He comments that even in jail, he had had some safety and comfort, but not so on this island.

Analysis

These chapters center on the three appearances of the Spirit Bear, culminating in the third and violent encounter. As the author moves Cole from the present situation on the island to flashbacks of the Circle Justice process back home, Cole’s desperate situation becomes more apparent to he himself and to the reader. The attack of the Spirit Bear forms the central transition point in this story where Cole’s pride, anger, and recklessness reach a climax.

In this section, we first see the major animal imagery, and Mikaelsen uses anthropomorphic imagery around animals. Anthropomorphism means giving animals human characteristics. For instance, the spirit bear in the first two encounters is described as stoic, majestic, and fearless, but these are human characteristics. It is almost as if Cole is relating to the Spirit Bear as a human. Similarly, the gulls act almost as a Greek chorus, witnesses to the drama between Cole and the Spirit Bear, cackling and entering at key moments—when Cole needs food, when Cole is attacked by the bear.

The image of the Spirit Bear is first fully developed in this section, and since it is so central to the novel, it is worth exploring more in depth here. The Spirit Bear itself is a species of black bear that roams in the islands off Alaska and Canada’s British Columbia province. It is known for its ferocity but also for its mysteriousness. The Spirit Bear is a paradoxical symbol because it at once represents the power and damage of Cole’s anger but also the calm and serenity very different from Cole’s initial attitudes.

In many ways, the Spirit Bear is perceived by Cole and portrayed to the reader as the antagonist of this novel up to this point. Cole very much remains the protagonist in his struggle for survival. Mikaelsen’s choice of an animal for antagonist is intriguing because it allows him to portray emotions without words. Simply by describing the bear’s posture, glances, and ultimately the attacks on Cole, the author is telling the reader about the bear’s inner personality and importance to Cole. Cole himself struggles to understand the bear’s paradoxical serenity and anger, and in the bear’s rage, he certainly sees a reflection of himself.

The folly of pride and the narrative of coming of age play a large role in the events of the bear attack. Cole is finally challenged in a way that no other has before. Cole’s assault of Peter Driscal—the event which landed him in jail and on the island in the first place—is in some ways a foreshadowing of Cole’s mauling by the Spirit Bear. In the same way that Cole beat Peter out of consciousness and permanently damaged him, the Spirit Bear has injured and hurt Cole in a permanent manner. Even greater than the physical loss, however, is Cole’s loss of pride. He is left at the end of this chapter, completely despondent, vanquished by his enemy, and the author evokes pity for this otherwise objectionable and angry protagonist.

Moreover, while Cole’s vulnerability is certainly very apparent, the flashbacks in this section reveal more hidden vulnerabilities that Cole himself cannot even yet accept. When he relives the times that his father abused him, Cole certainly feels vulnerable, and the reader sees how his other violent outbursts could be reactions against this tragedy at home. However, Cole still feels, as he says after the bear mauling, that “everything had always been afraid of him”—a phrase which certainly can’t include his father, who was quite vicious with him. This history of abuse will continue to shape how Cole understands his own process of healing through Circle Justice.

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