The author explores different means to achieve justice in this novel. While on the surface, this story is about the particular case of Cole Matthews and his own path to redemption, the author constantly makes comments on the current justice system's inadequacies and how alternative forms of justice could serve the criminals and society as a whole much better. Garvey, who works in the juvenile justice system, frequently comments how people go to prison for years, but they emerge unchanged.
Circle Justice, by contrast, involves the community in discussing the fate of a criminal, rather than simply a court, and it allows alternative ways for the person to make amends for his or her crimes. While the author never states it explicitly within the novel, the plot of the novel, as well as Cole's entire healing journey are examples of the value of alternative forms of justice. The reader finishes the book with a sense that justice ought not to be equated with merely punishment. It must also take into account the opportunity for healing within the criminal and the subsequent benefit to society that this personal transformation could offer.
The Power of Nature
Nature is a pervasive theme in Touching Spirit Bear. The wilderness island setting for Cole's banishment and the Indian traditions surrounding the place demonstrate the centrality of nature to understanding the environment, culture, and personal healing. Almost every chapter includes mention of a different animal, which either teaches Cole a lesson or is offered a symbol of greater hidden truths.
The author wants the reader to believe that nature indeed can reveal these hidden truths, and so the beaver becomes a symbol for patients and perseverance, the eagle becomes a symbol of strength and freedom, and the whale becomes a symbol of wandering and search for truth.
Most important, of course, is the presence of the Spirit Bear as a symbol of nature's justice. When Cole is mauled by the Spirit Bear after trying to attack it, his pride and his resistance to change are crushed and overwhelmed. He is incredibly humbled by this force of nature, and it is through this transformational process that he is able to heal and find a new path for his life.
The Circle of Life
The concept of the "circle of life" plays a large role throughout the novel, and it is explicitly the message that the author leaves the reader at the end of the book. On the one hand, this theme emphasizes the connectedness of all human beings with each other and with nature. This concept is exemplified by Cole's need to reconcile with Peter, by Garvey and Edwin's desire to help Cole in repentance for their past errors, and by the Spirit Bear's central role and presence on the island.
But this theme is also partly philosophical. When Edwin first takes Cole to the freezing pond, he gives him a stick and says that one side represents anger and one side represents happiness. He asks Cole to break of the angry side, but Cole notices that every time he breaks off the angry side on the left of the stick, another left side appears, and so anger cannot be eliminated. More practically, Cole's own process of healing is not complete until he helps Peter overcome his own problems, which are Cole's fault to begin with.
At the end of the novel, when Cole and Peter carve a circle into the bottom of the totem pole, they recognize that the stick with anger and happiness on each side does not represent the truth. Rather, anger and happiness are connected, and one can channel anger into happiness rather than be consumed by it. In these ways, a connection between people, places, and ideas is developed around the central theme of the "Circle of Life."
Anger and Revenge
Cole experiences severe bouts of anger throughout the novel. He is initially portrayed as a very angry person and takes much time to finally realize how to fix that problem. In Cole's own case, the anger comes from many different sources. He comes to discover that much of his anger comes from being beaten by his father, and that his father's own anger is because his own father had beaten him.
Cole, however, declares that he wants to be rid of anger, a notion that Edwin dismisses, saying that anger always will remain. The permanence of anger and one's need to cope with it and channel it into more beneficial emotions is again a central lesson that one learns from the book and a central point of analyzing the growth of each character.
As Cole grows less angry, he is able to devote himself more fully to serving others in need, such as Peter. He also witnesses how easy it is for the anger to well up inside of him again, such as when Peter begins to harass him on the island. By understanding the way in which Cole controlled his own anger, the author gives readers insight into this universal human emotion and both its negative consequences and positive possibilities.
The Role of Culture
Touching Spirit Bear presents a very different culture and way of seeing the world than is common for the typical American audience. The Native American traditions described within the book are quite unique in terms of their world view and their emphasis on the role of nature.
Cole, a native of Minneapolis, Minnesota, experiences this shock quite vividly when he arrives to Drake and to the island. Edwin is the character who most represents the Native American tradition, even though Garvey also has Tlingit ancestry. Edwin's gift of the at.óow, a trust blanket, is an example of traditions that convey important meaning in a culturally contingent manner.
Further, many of the activities that Cole participates in during his second trip on his island such as carrying the "ancestor rock" and bathing in the freezing pond to clear the mind are methods that would not be found in traditional American culture. Mikaelsen tries to make the "meeting of cultures" a way for Cole to find truth and healing.
The author develops the theme of healing across several different dimensions. First, on the purely physical level, the Spirit Bear's attack on Cole leaves Cole physically hurt and permanently weakened. This physical pain and arduous path to healing is analogous to the suffering that Peter previously endured at the hands of Cole. In many ways, both of these instances of physical suffering and subsequent healing make later personal and psychological healing possible.
Second, at the psychological or emotional level, healing occurs when anger subsides, when Cole forgives, and when Peter experiences relief from his depression. In fact, many of the characters in the book are portrayed as on a path of healing through this novel. Edwin and Garvey are trying to make up for their past offenses. Even Cole's mother begins to open up and get over her troubled marriage with Cole's dad.
Finally, healing in this novel occurs at the community level. While the goal of Circle Justice is to serve justice to Cole and have him grow personally, the entire community involved benefits. From sending Cole's father to jail for child abuse, to allowing Peter to come closer to forgiving Cole, all of these acts of justice and forgiveness allow the community in Minneapolis here depicted to emerge stronger than it was before.
Throughout Touching Spirit Bear, Cole is challenged to forgive and to earn forgiveness. Mikaelsen truly sees this as a central insight to bring justice and healing to communities. At several points in the novel, Cole has to explicitly forgive and be forgiven, climaxing of course with the final and most important forgiveness, between Cole and Peter. Once this final reconciliation occurs, the novel almost immediately ends because it brings together a slow process of allowing Cole to see the hurt that he has caused, to feel remorse, and then to make amends. The author very explicitly treats this theme in the way he structures the book, because these three steps are mirrored in the novel's plot. When Cole goes to the Circle for the first few times he sees the hurt he has caused in the community. Then, when he is attacked by the bear on the island, he is crushed by the remorse that he feels for all those who he had hurt. Finally, when he learns to forgive others and to try to help others recover from their own problems he make amends. These central questions guide the entire novel, and so it can be said that the novel is truly centered on forgiveness.
Touching Spirit Bear Questions and Answers
The Question and Answer section for Touching Spirit Bear is a great
resource to ask questions, find answers, and discuss the novel.