At the beginning of the novel, Cole Matthews, a fifteen-year-old juvenile delinquent from Minneapolis, Minnesota, arrives on a barren island near the city of Drake in Southeastern Alaska in handcuffs. He is accompanied by two men of Tlingit Indian origin, named Edwin and Garvey, who are instructing him on the terms of his banishment to the island. In the first few chapters, we learn through flashbacks about why Cole has been sent to the island. After years of violence and trouble with the law, Cole took his criminal streak a step too far when he viciously beat a classmate of his named Peter Driscal onto the floor of his school sidewalk. Peter suffers head trauma, speech problems, and constant nightmares as consequences of Cole’s actions. Faced with the prospect of being tried as an adult and sent to prison, Cole is offered the path of Circle Justice to avoid prison by a corrections officer named Garvey. This program is of Native American origin and seeks healing of the criminal for reintroduction to society. Reluctantly, Cole agrees, and a series of “Circles” meet in order to decide his sentence. We learn that Cole’s alcoholic father physically abused Cole while he was growing up. The Circle, comprised of Garvey, Cole’s parents, Peter, Peter’s parents, and other community members, decides that by banishing Cole to a remote Alaskan island near Garvey’s ancestral hometown, they can both teach Cole a lesson and protect others from his wrath.
When Cole arrives on the island, he is consumed by anger, bitterness, and an unwillingness to change. As soon as Edwin, a Tlingit elder, and Garvey leave, Cole sets fire to his constructed shelter and supplies, and jumps into the ocean to swim to freedom. Caught by the rising tide, he is unable to escape the island. In his first few days on the island, he has several encounters with a majestic, white bear called a Spirit Bear, and he is determined to kill it out of anger. One day, when he sees the bear, he stabs it with his knife and a makeshift spear. The bear is unfazed and instead viciously attacks Cole, breaking his hip and right arm as well as knocking him out. Left to die after the attack, Cole comes to realize his own vulnerability and need to change. A while after the attack, the Spirit Bear tamely approaches and comes within inches of Cole’s face. Cole reaches out to touch the bear and grabs a tuft of white hair from its back. Cole is profoundly moved by the bear’s peacefulness.
Edwin and Garvey come to check on Cole, and find him close to death, with mosquitoes and decay all around him. They take him to Drake, where a nurse named Rosey attends to him until he is taken to Minneapolis to heal. Upon recovering, he finds that his mother, previously aloof and unable to denounce his abusive father, has opened up to him and agreed to press charges against his father. Cole is anxious to begin his healing process through Circle Justice, but the members of the circle disagree, saying that he already gave up his chance and that he should be tried in the adult court system. Edwin comes from Alaska to defend Cole and insist that he should be given a second chance to live on the island. Edwin’s pleas are successful.
Back on the island, Cole is forced to build his own shelter, and Edwin teaches him a series of rituals that will sustain his healing and forgiveness process throughout the year. He is instructed to take a soak in a freezing pond every morning to clear his mind of anger. Then, he must take a large rock called the “ancestor rock” up a hill, and then roll it back down as a symbol of releasing his anger. Finally, if he sees an animal, then that evening he must do a dance imitating that animal, to learn a lesson from it. With some initial resistance, Cole eagerly follows these steps, even doing a wolf dance, eagle dance, and beaver dance, among others. However, he is plagued by the fact that he has not yet seen the Spirit Bear again. He busies himself carving a totem pole and doing pre-assigned schoolwork all through the winter into the spring.
Just as he is growing in his own process of healing, Edwin tells him that Peter Driscal, the boy he had attacked, is not doing well. The boy has developed depression and has twice attempted suicide. Cole insists that the best way to heal Peter is to have him come to the island and see how Cole has changed. Peter’s desperate parents agree on the condition that Garvey stays with them on the island. Cole initially frightens Peter, and later Peter is emboldened by Cole’s passivity, even punching and shoving Cole on several occasions. Cole shows Peter the natural wonders of the island and his own healing process, which allow Peter to understand how to forgive Cole and accept that his life has worth as well. As the two forgive each other, they see the Spirit Bear one last time, peaceful as it watches the two former enemies now reconcile. The novel ends with Peter and Cole carving a circle into the last empty space on Cole’s totem pole, symbolizing the unity and peace that they have found on the island.