Touching Spirit Bear

Touching Spirit Bear Summary and Analysis of Chapters 25, 26, 27, and 28


Chapter 25

Cole starts by telling Edwin that he thinks Peter should come to the island with him to heal. Edwin questions whether Cole has really changed, and Cole answers that he would stay on the island a lifetime if it meant that Peter would get better and feel better. Edwin leaves and returns two weeks later with Peter Driscal on the skiff. They had followed Cole’s instructions. Along with Peter came his parents as well as Garvey.

Edwin retells the story of the past two weeks. The circle had been meeting for hours to decide how best to help Peter and Cole. The Driscal family was hesitant to go to Alaska, but they realized that they had no other hope. Edwin then tells Cole to recount to the Driscals everything that had transpired on the island in excruciating detail, so that they would know what kind of a transformation had come about inside of him. Cole reveals for the first time to the whole group that he can’t heal until he helps Peter heal.

Chapter 26

Peter’s parents decide to leave the next morning, since they feel that Peter is safe with Garvey’s protection, but Mr. Driscal sternly warns Cole that if he touches Peter, he’ll go to jail for sure. Peter still doesn’t want to speak to Cole, but after Cole offers him a candy bar, he takes it. Garvey and Cole chat for a while about life back in Minneapolis. Cole’s father has filed for Cole’s custody, but Garvey assures Cole that he will never win it. Cole’s mother is also said to be doing well. Since Peter is still afraid of Cole, Cole has to sleep in a cold tent 100 yards away from the shelter as Garvey and Peter sleep in the warmth.

The next morning, Peter and Garvey accompany Cole to the freezing pond, although only Cole gets in, and then they carry the ancestor rock up the hill again as well. Days go by without any change in Peter, but eventually he rolls the ancestor rock down the hill and attempts to enter the freezing pond. At the end of the chapter, Peter invites Cole to sleep inside of the warm shelter instead of the cold tent.

Chapter 27

Peter begins to pester Cole by mudding up his sleeping bag, destroying some of Cole’s carvings, and doing other things to annoy him. Cole offers him a totem pole of his own to carve, and Peter reluctantly accepts it. Cole is particularly angered when Peter denies that Cole was attacked by an actual Spirit Bear and says it was probably just a black bear. At the end of the chapter, Peter carves back the bear that he had scratched off of Cole’s totem pole, and Cole is so impressed by Peter’s carving skills that he asks Peter to teach him how to carve better.

Chapter 28

In this final chapter, Peter first proposes that he and Cole go soak in the freezing pond alone together. On the way, Peter starts pushing Cole after an angry dialogue. Cole refuses to fight back, which only makes Peter attack him harder—punching, kicking, and scratching Cole until he falls to the ground. Cole doesn’t do one thing to fight back. Upon seeing Cole so weak and laying hurt on the ground, Peter falls to his knees and starts crying. Just as Cole goes to hug him, the Spirit Bear appears. Peter is amazed and shocked that he appeared, and understands Cole’s concept of being “invisible.”

The two return to the camp and work together to carve the last space on Cole’s totem pole. Garvey comes out and is shocked to see that they have chosen to carve a simple circle in the last space. Cole’s healing is complete, and he gives the at.óow to Peter, indicating his trust in their relationship.


With the arrival of Peter, the stage is set for the final actions of the novel. Cole’s personal healing is almost complete, but his full healing will only come if he is able to contribute to Peter’s own healing. The author uses the arrival of Peter and his family to show just how far Cole has come. Edwin asks Cole to go through his entire experience on the island, and both Peter’s parents and the reader are left convinced that Cole has fundamentally changed. The author does this to heighten the drama of the scene since, as Cole well knows, all of this progress—as impressive as it is—depends on Cole’s ability to help Peter.

At the same time, however, the veracity of Cole’s transformation is tested by Peter’s presence. Cole again has to suffer greatly by living in the cold tent outside the shelter until Peter feels comfortable with him. Peter continually insults him, destroys his carvings, and doubts the veracity of Cole’s transformation. He goes as far as completely beating Cole up. However, as the final few passages demonstrate, no one is beyond the reach of healing and forgiveness. In this way, Mikaelsen rounds out Cole’s own coming of age tale by connecting it with the life of Peter Driscal, the victim whose suffering persisted although so much healing had occurred in his aggressor.

The connectedness of all human and animal life—as exemplified by Peter and Cole jointly carving a circle as the last piece of the totem pole—is a fundamental message of this novel’s ending. The personal development of every character in the book in some way depended on the support and development of others. Edwin and Garvey took on this project in the first place because of their own troubled pasts. Cole clearly had the most difficult past to get over. Peter and his family suffered much at the hands of Cole. Moreover, it was only by reconnecting with Cole that Cole’s mother was able to escape her own indifference and apathy to embrace her son with love. Even the Spirit Bear is linked in this circle, as his appearance after Cole and Peter’s fight is the catalyst that helps Peter trust Cole’s account and understand Cole’s transformation.

Cole sums up the entire narrative of the novel and of his time on the island with one phrase in Chapter 28: “The dances, carving the totem, carrying the ancestor rock, touching the Spirit Bear, it was all the same thing—it was finding out who I really was.” This message condenses the insights gained throughout the book by the reader and moves the novel from a particular story of a particular kind of justice carried out in a specific setting into a more universal set of principles about human relations. Mikaelsen does not fall captive to promoting Circle Justice as the most perfect and humane form of justice possible; rather, he emphasizes that it is one way of healing and that there can be many paths to truth.

The symbol of the circle itself is important, as indicated by its place as the final etching on the totem pole. When Cole first entered the freezing pond, Edwin asked him to grab a stick where one end was anger and the other was happiness. As many times as Cole broke off the anger side, there was always another anger side that would emerge on the smaller stick. While Edwin leaves this question unresolved back at that time, in the final chapters we see the resolution to this philosophical problem. In other words, by integrating anger into part of the “circle” of emotions and life experiences, Cole is able to harness it for the good of others and heal himself in the process. This was the insight that Edwin said that only Cole could discover himself. His path was certainly circuitous and Peter, Edwin, and Garvey, for example, likely followed different paths, but the connectedness of all aspects of life and healing is an unmistakable element of the symbol of the circle, which united all of Cole’s knowledge and experiences.

Indeed, we see by the various ways other characters have developed throughout the story in addition to Cole that there are many paths to healing and understanding. It is important to keep this notion in mind in order to keep oneself from presenting this novel as merely a “nature adventure” or a “coming-of-age story.” Its narrative places a special emphasis on Indian traditions and on nature imagery as mechanisms for anger management, forgiveness, and personal healing, but these are simply means to a broader end and message conveyed by Mikaelsen. The reader is left feeling that there are universal ways in which one can “touch the Spirit Bear” in order to grapple with inner failings and past anger in constructive ways.