Touching Spirit Bear Summary and Analysis

Chapters 17, 18, 19, and 20

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Summary

Chapter 17

The next day, Edwin and Garvey wake Cole up early after he has had a restless night without much sleep and with many dreams and anxieties. They go to the stream and Edwin declares that they will go swimming in a freezing pond to teach Cole a lesson. He makes Cole dip completely into the water shoulder-high and then asks him to break a stick, whose left side represents anger and right side represents happiness. The lesson implied is that if you focus on anger and try to break the left side off, a left side of the stick always remains. Edwin tells Cole how when he was banished to the island he would dip himself everyday in the freezing pond and try to focus on the happy end of the stick, not the angry end.

Chapter 18

They go back to the camp and notice whales breaching off the shore. Cole set off to build his shelter all on his own without the help of Edwin or Garvey. Cole’s arms are blistered, and he resents how Edwin and Garvey make him do absolutely everything—from cooking, to washing the dishes. Since they had seen whales in the morning, Edwin insists that they do a whale dance. Edwin and Garvey, in turn, danced around the fire making whale-breaching motions with their head and arms. Cole reluctantly agrees and while dancing notices how whales migrate but do not have a home, and he feels understanding with them.

The next morning, they again go into the freezing pond for the anger exercise. Cole reluctantly agrees. Edwin then continues afterwards to take Cole to meet his “ancestors.” The exercise involves taking a large “ancestor rock” representing the ancestors up a slope, and Edwin tells Cole how these ancestors have many lessons to teach him.

Chapter 19

The chapter again begins with an animal sighting as Edwin and Cole return from their morning lessons. This time, it is a wolf sighting. Garvey insists that this night they will do a “wolf dance.” The rest of the day is consumed by Cole constructing the shelter again, and he becomes irritated. In a fit of anger, Cole tells Edwin and Garvey that he won’t cook them food or do the wolf dance. They threaten to return him to Minnesota, since he had broken part of the agreement, and then Cole immediately returns to do everything they ask. The two men retire to the tent while Cole does the wolf dance on his own. The lesson of the wolf dance is “that you need the help of others, like a wolf pack.”

The next morning, Cole is instructed to go on his own to the pond to soak in the freezing water and reflect on his anger. Then, he goes to the mountain to carry the “ancestor rock” up the mountain and then release his anger downwards as he rolled down the rock. Just as he finishes these soothing exercises, determined to change his life again, he sees the Spirit Bear in the woods.

Chapter 20

Cole returns to tell Edwin and Garvey of his morning, and he nearly finishes constructing the shelter, installing a door and windows. The two adults are so impressed that they tell Cole that they are leaving him the next morning. Cole prepares an extra special meal for them as their last dinner together. Since Cole saw the Spirit Bear, he proposes to do a Spirit Bear dance as the last dance before the two leave. Cole’s spirit bear dance reenacts his mauling in its entirety before Edwin and Garvey. Before departing, Garvey presents Cole with a small hunting knife.

Analysis

In these four chapters of Touching Spirit Bear, a change in setting, increased character development and nature symbolism help underscore the fundamental transformation at work inside of Cole. While Cole remains the protagonist, Edwin and Garvey increasingly play the role of antagonists on this second visit to the island, replacing the previous antagonistic role of the Spirit Bear. We gain insights into each of these characters. For instance, Edwin reveals how he was banished for a year on the same island in his same youth, and how he came to a process of healing.

The theme of anger again plays a central role. Anger is personified in multiple forms. For instance, it is present in the exercise at the freezing pond where Edwin uses a stick as a symbol of the futility of fighting anger. Just as Cole must accept the numbness caused by the freezing water, he must accept his own anger. Anger is also personified through the “ancestor rock” that Cole must carry up the hill each day. On the way up, the rock represents the value of his own life and those of his ancestors, but when he releases it downwards at the end of the climb, Edwin tells him to imagine it representing his anger as he lets it go. These symbolic representations draw heavily on Indian traditions but also form a central part of circle justice.

The importance of animal imagery again appears in these chapters, and they are linked with these traditional Indian practices. When on the second day, the group sights whales off the island’s shore, Edwin proposes a whale dance that evening. Each person in turn dances around the fire making motions of a breaching whale, and afterwards they are supposed to convey a lesson learned from the dance.

The second day, they see a wolf, and they do a wolf dance, while on the third day after Cole sees a Spirit Bear, they do a Spirit Bear dance. Each of these dances allows Cole to place himself in the spirit of animals in a kind of reverse anthropomorphism. In this sense, Cole is searching for a simpler understanding of the natural world and by consequence, of his own life. Particularly moving is Cole’s Spirit Bear dance in which he reenacts the scene of the mauling from the perspective of the bear. The author uses this clever way to demonstrate how Cole is beginning to understand empathy and forgive instead of holding anger. By placing himself in the skin of his enemy, he accepts the hurt that he felt and the ensuing anger towards the Spirit Bear.

Edwin and Garvey guide him along each of these paths, but as he comments at the end of Chapter 20, he prefers to go on these trips alone to reflect. However, as Edwin and Garvey leave, Cole feels profoundly lonely and afraid of the coming year. By the end of this section, it is clear that Cole is ready for a journey but still must learn more in his time of isolation.