Touching Spirit Bear

Touching Spirit Bear Summary and Analysis of Chapters 21, 22, 23, and 24


Chapter 21

Cole is finally alone on the island, and he focuses on keeping himself busy as much as possible. He occupied himself building furniture for his shelter. Edwin makes his first visit back four days later, and Cole seems to be doing well still. When Cole finds a huge washed-up pole, he decides to make a totem pole carving out of it. However, the log brings the possibility of making a canoe for escape, and Cole skips his morning soak in the freezing pond as he contemplates this possibility with anger in his heart for the first time since Edwin and Garvey departed.

On his next visit, Edwin sees that Cole had started to make a canoe but had instead crafted part of a totem pole, and Edwin is impressed that Cole has chosen the right course. Cole signals his first signs of feeling compassion for Peter, who Edwin reports is not doing well. Cole dances an eagle dance, but Edwin says that he is not ready for an anger dance, the one that would heal him the most.

Chapter 22

Cole continues to busy himself making a totem pole with an inscribed eagle and then an inscribed wolf. He continues to search for the Spirit Bear on the island, masking his human scent to make him “invisible” by wearing clean clothes and rubbing ashes and branches over his body. Cole meets a beaver in the pond, does a beaver dance, and carves a beaver into the totem pole. Weeks pass with Cole continuing to be busy and to work hard on the totem pole, his schoolwork, and on finding the Spirit Bear again. Still, there is no sign of the Spirit Bear. Cole asks himself, how could he become invisible to the Spirit Bear, and what does he have left to be able to heal?

Chapter 23

Cole realizes that to be invisible he has to clear his mind. He had to become invisible “not to the world, but to himself.” He heads to the shore to clear his mind, and when he does so, the Spirit Bear appears by the shore. The sight of the bear is only fleeting, and it disappears almost as quickly as it had appeared.

That night, Cole feels ready to do the dance of anger that Edwin had been telling him about. It naturally comes to him as he lets out a scream and dances around the fire. He again relived the bear attack, and he cries asking forgiveness for attaching Peter. He then forgives those who have hurt him, and he cries profusely. As the scene closes with Cole collapsing, exhausted, crying, halfway through the night, the Spirit Bear looks on, unbeknownst to Cole.

Chapter 24

When Edwin comes again, Cole tells him that during the dance of anger he had learned to forgive, because if one doesn’t forgive, one gives the other person control over your emotions. Edwin reminds him that he needs to find a way to make up for Peter, either by helping him or by helping someone else, because otherwise the pain will remain forever. Then, Cole asks Edwin if this is why Edwin and Garvey help him, and Edwin says yes.

Much time lapses, and suddenly Cole is facing the brutal winter. He uses his stockpiled firewood and rarely goes out. He even gives up his morning soak in the freezing pond and carrying the ancestor rock. He replaces that with other routine activities and even celebrates Christmas with a small pine tree he finds in the woods. The only daunting task left was to find the last image to carve into his totem pole.

One day in March, Edwin tells him that Peter has attempted suicide, and Cole is horrified. All he can do for the next days as he goes again to the freezing pond is to think about Peter. The chapter ends with a desperate situation, as Edwin comes back in the skiff to say that Peter has attempted suicide again and that his parents are desperate. Cole says that Peter should come to the island to find hope.


In these chapters, we witness Cole’s progress as he experiences months of isolation and healing. The reader knows that the novel has climaxed and that Cole has been severely tested already, but the author maintains a certain level of suspense because it seems that Cole is still looking for an insight that he is missing and Edwin is still waiting for him to find it.

In the backdrop is the ongoing drama with Peter’s poor recovery. Edwin tells Cole first that Peter is not doing well, then that he is severely depressed and on medication, and finally that he has attempted suicide multiple times. Cole’s admirable personal struggle for improvement is still weighed down by the ghosts of his past wrongs, and the author sets up the ending of the novel for a resolution of this tension.

This mood of suspense pervades the entire setting, and the animal and musical symbols that pervade the chapters amplify this suspense. Cole meets a beaver as well as an eagle and learns from each through the dances inspired by each animal’s behavior. The sensory scene is amplified by the author’s use of similes (“[Cole’s] heart pounded a steady beat like a distant drum”), and the reader is drawn into the spiritual rituals that are explained as the source of Cole’s insights and healing. Cole completes the anger dance, which Edwin had described as the most important dance, and it gives him the crucial insight that the way to release his anger is to forgive. He relives the Spirit Bear mauling during the dance of anger, but with a completely different feel because he approaches it with an attitude of forgiveness. The reader is shocked by the total transformation occurring in Cole.

Similarly, the carving of the totem pole is highly symbolic, with each animal image or storied etched into the pole representing a particular struggle, which Cole has faced. There is, however, unresolved tension and an uneasy tone in Cole’s thoughts when he thinks about the last clear spot at the bottom of the pole. Edwin similarly creates tension when he reveals his concern about this omission, and the empty spot represents the last step of Cole’s healing through circle justice.

The relationship with the Spirit Bear remains but becomes more distant and more symbolic. In this section, the reader comes to know more fully the meaning of the title “Touching Spirit Bear.” This phrase captures the essence of this lingering question in Cole’s heart. He comes closer to finding meaning when he learns how to become “invisible not to the world, but to himself.” After he accomplishes this clearing of his mind from anger and thought, he is able to see the Spirit Bear several times, although in the winter he cannot see him at all.

At one point, the omniscient narrator even refers to Cole’s fear of losing the insights that he had gained: “he feared what would happen when he returned to Minneapolis….Would he still be able to find the Spirit Bear?” Even for Cole, the Spirit Bear has come to represent much more than the white beast that attacked him. Forgiving and being at peace are his way of touching the Spirit Bear and healing his own life.